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A wave of news about lead poisoning, prevention

As Congressional investigations into Flint shut down, here in Rhode Island resources for prevention, outreach and inspection are being consolidated at RI Department of Health

By Richard Asinof
Posted 1/30/17
The saga of lead poisoning in Flint, Mich., continues to unfold, despite the improvement in water tests showing a decreased amount of lead in water samples taken between July and December of 2016. The Congressional investigation into what happened was quietly closed down last week. Here in Rhode Island, the proposed budget for FY 2018 includes a consolidation of functions around lead poisoning prevention activities at the R.I. Department of Health.
When will a new chair be appointed to lead the special legislative commission to study the presence and treatment of lead in drinking water in Rhode Island? Will the government grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to the Childhood Lead Action Project be frozen? What opportunities will there be here in Rhode Island to pursue more conversation around the impact of lead poisoning on reading levels of schoolchildren?
The role that groups such as the Childhood Lead Action Project play in terms of civic engagement and building community resources is often unsung, undervalued and underappreciated. Such groups are often on the front lines of protecting Rhode Island and its communities from environmental toxins and hazards – and in building healthy communities. The transition in leadership from Roberta Hazen Aaronson to Laura Brion offers an opportunity to celebrate the tenacious quality of the group’s advocacy.

PROVIDENCE – Like a winter storm that produces a mixture of snow, freezing rain and rain, there was a mix of news on the lead poisoning front last week, much of it occurring under the radar screen.

It is still not safe to drink the water in Flint, Mich., the city of 100,000 that continues to grapple with lead contamination of its water supplies, but Michigan state environmental officials announced that lead concentrations in the water had fallen to 12 parts per billion in the six-month testing period between July and December of 2016, below the federal action level of 15 parts per billion.

However, some residents do not put much faith in the state’s testing, considering that the state environmental officials had previously told residents the water was fine and to keep using it.

“They’ve fooled us too many times,” said Gina Luster, an organizer for Flint Rising, told The Washington Post. “I’m not going anywhere near it. I don’t think we’ll ever trust the water again.”

In Washington, D.C., the Congressional investigation into what had happened in Flint was quietly closed down last week, with the committee findings offering no new information.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, in letters to fellow Republicans, said that Michigan and federal officials were slow in detecting high levels of lead in the water and did not act fact enough once the problem was discovered.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, senior Democrat on the oversight panel, wanted the investigation to continue, accusing Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder of stonewalling the committee over documents related to the Flint water crisis. Cummings said that Snyder’s intransigence in providing key documents had thwarted committee efforts to answer critical questions about what he knew as the crisis unfolded.

“Requiring Gov. Snyder to finally comply with the committee’s request will allow us to complete our investigation and offer concrete findings and recommendations to help prevent a catastrophe like this from happening again,” Cummings wrote to Chaffetz. “In contrast, allowing Gov. Snyder to flout the committee’s authority will deny the people of Flint the answers they deserve.”

Here in Rhode Island, as described in the executive summary, Gov. Gina Raimondo’s proposed FY 2018 budget includes “the transfer of $590,618 in restricted receipt financing from the Executive Office of Commerce to the Department of Health for lead related issues.”

Translated, what that means is that functions around lead poisoning prevention activities are being consolidated at the R.I. Department of Health, bringing the inspections and rental housing and lead safety certificates under one roof.

To accomplish this, the budget calls for dedicating a portion of the existing tax on real estate transfers to support this revenue-neutral move, according to sources.

The status of the special legislative commission to study the presence and treatment of lead in drinking water in the Rhode Island remains unclear. The commission had been established by the R.I. General Assembly in 2016, tasked with making a comprehensive study of the presence of lead in drinking water supplies in the state.

The legislator chosen to be chair of the commission, Rep. Eileen Naughton, was defeated in her primary election, and no new commission chair has been appointed to date. Stay tuned.

Laura Brion, the director of Community Organizing and Advocacy, has been asked to serve as the interim executive director of the Childhood Lead Action Project, following the retirement of Roberta Hazen Aaronson, the long-time executive director at the organization.


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