STATE HOUSE – Rep. June S. Speakman and Rep. Terri Cortvriend plan to introduce legislation in the upcoming legislative session to push the state to take action to protect drinking water from known toxins, according to a press release issued today by the Rhode Island General Assembly’s Legislative Press and Public Information Bureau.
The Safe Drinking Water Act, which the two lawmakers also introduced last year (2019-H 6064), will be introduced in partnership with the Conservation Law Foundation, Future Now and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The bill — being introduced in state legislatures around the country — provides for state-level standards for drinking water to limit known toxics and protect residents from harm.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has resisted calls by public health groups and environmentalists to regulate manmade contaminants, including PFOA, PFOS and related compounds linked to cancer, Chromium-6 (the Erin Brockovich chemical) and 1,4 dioxane, which can be found in the drinking water of millions of people. The Safe Drinking Water Act allows the state to step up and take action, setting standards for drinking water to protect residents from known toxins.
“There are a lot of things we don’t know about many of the chemicals that wind up in drinking water from manufacturing and other industries, but we do know that many are dangerous to public health and cause a variety of health problems. While we gather more information, I firmly believe we should be erring on the side of protecting the public rather than on the side of polluters. It is absolutely critical that public drinking water supplies are safe. From Flint, Michigan, to our own Burrillville, we have seen instances of public drinking water made unsafe by contaminants, and government not always being swift to step in. Instead, we should be proactive and give priority to public health,” said Representative Speakman (D-Dist. 68, Warren, Bristol) in the press release.
Said Representative Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72, Portsmouth, Middletown) in the release, “Rhode Island doesn’t have to sit idle while the federal government looks the other way from the pollution that is harming public health. In fact, it’s our duty to take the action necessary to protect our drinking water. Safe drinking water is a necessity and a human right, and Rhode Islanders deserve to have that right protected. We look forward to addressing this issue in the 2020 legislative session.”
Although the legislators are still working with advocates to establish the details in Rhode Island’s legislation, it is expected to:
● Establish state-wide maximum contaminant levels for PFOS, PFOA, other PFAS compounds, chromium-6 and 1,4 dioxane in public drinking water systems;
● Direct the state to consider limits on other pollutants in drinking water systems when two or more other states have set limits or issued guidance on a given pollutant;
● Provide for review of the best available scientific evidence in setting maximum contaminant limits;
● Ensure contaminant limits sufficient to protect vulnerable people, including pregnant and nursing mothers, infants, and children.
States including California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont have already taken state-level action and are leading the way in protecting their residents from these dangerous chemicals.
PFAs — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are manmade chemicals linked to cancer, developmental delays and other health problems. They are commonly used in nonstick and stain-repellent coatings, as well as firefighting foam and thousands of other applications.
The federal EPA has agreed only to a “recommendation” that that drinking water not contain more than 70 parts per trillion (ppt) of PFOA and PFOS, two of the more extensively studied chemicals in the PFA group.
The 2019 version of the bill would have required the Department of Health to establish maximum contaminate levels of PFAs in public drinking water supplies and set an interim standard of 20 ppt, which is the level recently adopted in Vermont.
The bill is also supported by the Conservation Law Foundation, which earlier this year petitioned the Department of Health to impose a 20 ppt limit on public water supplies. The department denied the request, saying it needs more research and EPA regulations.
“Toxic PFAS have no place in our bodies or our drinking water,” said Amy Moses, vice president and director of Conservation Law Foundation Rhode Island in the press release. “The federal government is ignoring its responsibility to protect the public from these dangerous chemicals. It’s up to the states to protect the public from these dangerous chemicals. It’s up to the states to safeguard our water, and this bill is a great step in that direction.”
The EPA did require public water systems that serve 10,000 or more to test for the substances between 2013 and 2015, and while systems in Cumberland and Westerly had some contamination, their levels were below the advisory levels at that time and have since dropped.
However, following news about serious contaminations in New Hampshire and Vermont, in 2017, DEM conducted testing on smaller water systems and vulnerable sites near potential contamination sites. The results showed contamination in eight places around the state, including a small public water system in the Oakland neighborhood in Burrillville that significantly exceeded the EPA’s advisory level. That system, as well as six other private wells in the neighborhood, were found to be contaminated by firefighting foam used by the nearby Oakland-Mapleville Fire District. System users were instructed to stop consuming the water, and have had to rely on bottled water until a connection to the nearby Harrisville water system was completed this summer.
The issue is receiving greater public attention as a result of actor and environmental activist Mark Ruffalo’s new legal thriller, “Dark Waters,” which tells the true story of a lawyer taking on a major corporation after it caused staggering PFOA contamination of water that devastated communities. This chemical that the movie is centered around, PFOA, is a key contaminant lawmakers across the nation are fighting against through the Safe Drinking Water Act.