This piece has been updated with comments from the NRDC, and local and state officials.
According to a new report released by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), nearly one in four Americans drink from systems plagued with violations under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). The same report identifies Washington State as one of the top states with drinking water system violations by population, based on a study of violations in 2015.
But Seattle Public Utilities and the state Department of Health contest that ranking. A Seattle Public Utilities spokesperson called the NRDC report "fake news," and took issue with the report's methodology.
The NRDC report named Washington as the state with the second highest number of people served by water systems that violated a health rule for surface and groundwater treatment, and the state with the fourth highest number of people served by water systems with volatile organic chemical violations. In addition, Washington State was the third-ranked state for people drinking water from systems with consumer confidence violations—the federal rule that mandates that community water systems deliver water quality information to the people they serve at least once a year.
More than 1.2 million people in King County are served by water systems with SDWA violations, according to the report, and 73 percent of those people are served by a water system that had a health violation specifically. Seattle Public Utilities was listed as a water system that once violated the SDWA's surface water/groundwater section, a set of rules that aims to protect people from pathogens leaching into their drinking water from surrounding bodies of water.
Still, it was rural Washington counties—not the Seattle area or King County—that bore the most health-specific violations by population in the state. Rural areas often bear the brunt of drinking water violations, according to the NRDC report. Most of Walla Walla County, for example, had been served by a water system with a health violation in 2015.
But according to the Washington Department of Health and Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), it appears that Washington's ranking on the NRDC report was primarily driven by one incident in December of 2015. For 17 minutes at the Tolt River water treatment plant on December 29, water quality exceeded turbidity standards. The EPA lists excessive turbidity, or the measure of cloudiness in the water, as a water quality indicator because it could indicate the presence of pathogens. The violation was not considered an emergency by SPU or the state, but the law dictated that customers were given notice.
"We had to report that under state regulations, but at no time was anybody in any danger," SPU spokesperson Andy Ryan said. "The water was safe and continues to be safe."
Derek Pell, assistant regional manager at the Department of Health, confirmed SPU's analysis of the Tolt incident and the NRDC report.
NRDC report co-author and staff attorney Mae Wu said that it wasn't the environmental group's intention to characterize any one state's drinking water as unsafe, and that if they had looked at violations from 2014 or 2016, the rankings could have come out differently. Still, Wu said that ranking violations by the population served is a useful tool, and that the report's methodology had been reviewed among staff scientists as well as externally.
"There are plenty of states with large systems in them that didn't rank high because they didn't have any problems in their system," Wu said. "From our perspective, a violation in a large system which could end up affecting more people is something that's worth noting."
Authors of the NRDC report stressed that regional governments should upgrade and modernize drinking water treatment systems, and suggested smaller water systems might consider consolidating together in order to create economies of scale for better water treatment programs. The report also urged the EPA and state governments to disburse grants to low-income and minority areas, where people are most likely to be affected by poor drinking water.
With the prospect of a gutted EPA under Trump, that doesn't look likely.
"The overall goal of this report is to bring people's attention to invest more in our drinking water infrastructure system," Wu said. "We're not trying to create a mass panic around the quality of drinking water, but shine a light on the importance of our water quality."