With Lead-Tainted Water in Galesburg, Illinois, We Need Action Now

Everyone deserves the right to safe drinking water in their home. Period.

As a mother, as a grandmother and as your Representative in Congress, I was deeply disturbed to learn about recent water tests that measured lead content well above the “federal action level” in Galesburg. I was even more alarmed by reports that nearly 5 percent of the children tested under the age of 6 were positive for lead levels above the threshold for intervention.

If it were one of my kids, I’d want some answers and some immediate action to address this crisis. And that’s exactly what these families deserve.

As soon as my office found out about this problem, I kicked into watchdog mode. We immediately reached out to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and Galesburg city officials. This past Friday, I met face-to-face with Mayor John Pritchard, City Manager Todd Thompson, Director of Public Works Wayne Carl and officials from the Knox County Health Department.

When I spoke to a reporter from the Galesburg Register-Mail afterward, I told him that I left those meetings much more concerned than when I arrived.

I am not interested in finger pointing, but I think this is an urgent matter, and it’s alarming to me that many officials are so quick to point to lead paint and lead dust as the cause of elevated lead blood levels before fully examining this issue.

The city has estimated there are about 4,700 homes in Galesburg that have private service pipes made out of lead, which is not uncommon for homes built before the mid-1980s.

I represent 14 counties, stretching from Rockford to the Quad-Cities to Peoria. Many of the families I serve outside of Galesburg also live in older homes.

While lead paint and dust are an area of significant concern to me, Knox is the only county I represent where we have children reporting such high levels of lead exposure and water exceeding the federal action level for lead content.

The health effects of lead exposure cannot be overlooked or underestimated, especially for children and pregnant women. It can lead to behavioral problems, shorter attention spans, reduced IQ, and impaired learning. At extremely high levels, it can attack the brain and central nervous system to cause coma, convulsions and even death.

To help deal with this serious problem, here are five actions I have already taken:

I joined nearly 100 members of Congress in requesting $2 billion in next year’s budget for a program called the Safe Drinking Water Revolving Fund.

This program provides extremely low interest rate loans to cities to help them replace lead pipes or other critically important water infrastructure materials. While members of Congress cannot direct spending to their district because of the ban on earmarks, I can fight for critically important federal programs and then work to connect stakeholders in our communities to federal resources like this. I have urged the city to apply for assistance through this program.

I have backed a new bill called the CLEAR Act, which would improve reporting, testing and monitoring of lead levels in America’s drinking water.

Many of the people we’ve seen in Galesburg and other communities simply didn’t know about the risk facing their families. This legislation would improve notification and community education programs to get at-risk families more information.

I have initiated outreach to several environmental and medical experts on the field of lead contamination to get their input on the situation facing Galesburg.
I have requested that the City of Galesburg provide the full data set for the water tests dating back to 1992 so families in the community can understand the full extent of this problem.
I have requested city officials outline their plan to work with the Knox County Department of Health to help the families affected.

You can read my formal request to the City of Galesburg here.

Transparency is critically important to this process, so as I get data from the city and the experts I’m consulting with, I will make this information public so everyone can see it for themselves.

My heart breaks for the mothers and fathers who are finding out that their children may be suffering from the potentially lifelong and devastating after-effects of lead poisoning.

I refuse to accept that a long-term solution is asking thousands of families and children to remember to run the faucet for 30 seconds every time they get a glass of water, as some city officials have suggested.

This is a serious problem that requires a serious response to protect the children of today and the children of tomorrow.

I promise to fight for you.

No excuses. Even one child is one too many. Our families and our children deserve solutions once and for all.

Congresswoman Cheri Bustos represents Illinois’ 17th Congressional District, which includes Galesburg, Peoria, the Quad-Cities and Rockford. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter.

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