Legislators cite Oakland contamination in call for action on water safety

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PROVIDENCE – Pointing to contaminated wells discovered in Burrillville in 2017, representatives announced this week that they plan to introduce legislation to push the state to take action to protect drinking water from known toxins.

Rep. June Speakman, a Democrat representing Warren and Bristol and Rep. Terri Cortvriend, a Democrat representing Portsmouth and Middletown, said they plan to submit a bill in the upcoming legislative session dubbed the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The two lawmakers first introduced the bill, which provides for state-level standards for drinking water to limit known toxics and protect residents from harm, last year. Similar bills have reportedly been introduced across the country.

“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,” said Speakman. “Instead, we should be proactive and give priority to public health.”

The legislation will be introduced in partnership with the Conservation Law Foundation, Future Now and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

According to a release from the representatives, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has resisted calls by public health groups and environmentalists to regulate manmade contaminants, including PFOA, PFOS and related compounds linked to cancer, Chromium-6 and 1,4 dioxane, which can be found in the drinking water of millions of people. The Safe Drinking Water Act is aimed at allowing 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.

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 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.

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.

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, among other changes.

Cortvriend said, “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.”

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