Esty asks feds for money to combat lead in tainted CT water systems

Washington – Connecticut does not have the type of water problems that are harming Flint, Mich., but staff cutbacks in the state’s drinking water monitoring program – in addition to problems and incidents of lead-tainted water in some state water systems – have prompted U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty to ask the federal government for help.

“It is extremely important to the health of Connecticut residents that CT Department of Public Health is able to retain a well-trained workforce. With current budget constraints, CT DPH has indicated it will be unable to do so,” Esty wrote to federal Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy.

The letter also went to Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden.

It said that “immediate action must be taken to ensure that Connecticut’s residents have access to safe drinking water, that no residents are forced to pay for contaminated water, and that CT DPH has the resources it needs to maintain the integrity of its uncontaminated system.”

Analyses of federal data by the Associated Press  and by The Connecticut Mirror last month found that dozens of water systems serving schools, office parks, condominiums and apartments have exceeded federal lead levels at least once since January 2013.

Only a fraction, 39, of the 1,082 water systems in the state were found to be out of compliance of federal water quality laws.

A separate analysis by the Connecticut Mirror that reached back to 2000 found elevated levels of drinking water accounted for only 0.2 percent of all water-quality violations in the state.

The Mirror analysis found nearly 55,000 water quality violations in Connecticut were tracked by the EPA since 2000. But most of those involved other pollutants.

Still, Esty, D-5th District, said the list of lead-contaminated water systems included three that served 516 people in her district. And she’s concerned the monitoring of Connecticut’s water could deteriorate.

She has asked federal officials to for money to boost the number of technical staff in the DPH’s drinking water section.

“Staffing levels have been reduced from 50 employees to 38,” Esty’s letter said. “CT DPH licenses more than 2,200 certified public drinking water operators. This certification program, previously funded by the Expense Reimbursement Grant that ended in 2010, currently has only one state-funded staff member.”

In response to Esty’s efforts, the Connecticut Department of Public Health declined to say it is short-handed, but said it welcomed Esty’s efforts to find the agency more resources.

“Our Drinking Water Section does an amazing job with the resources we have to ensure the safety of our drinking water, and increased federal funding would certainly bolster our efforts to enforce the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and state drinking water laws,” said DPH head Raul Pino.

He said his agency is “extremely grateful to Congresswoman Esty for her efforts to increase federal funding for our Drinking Water Section.”

Nevertheless, on March 30, Pino sent a letter to the EPA asking for a doubling of a grant– from $1.3 million to $2.6 million –“to assure adequate public drinking water program staffing levels.”

Pino also asked for federal funding for support of a “robust Certified Operator Program,” to make sure the state’s water systems comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act, the main federal law regulating the nation’s water quality.

“We presently have one state-funded staff and need a minimum of four for an adequate program,” he wrote the EPA.

Despite the needs for more federal funding and staff, Pino assured the EPA “Connecticut is completely committed to assuring public health protection and ensuring that public drinking water consumed in the state of Connecticut is safe.”

“CTDPH staff work tirelessly to achieve this shared commitment despite the increasingly dwindling resources and funding,” he said.

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