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Dirty water hearing: Can government clean house?

Officials are calling for more transparency about lead levels in Americans' drinking water. Meanwhile, the House is probing New York's response to a water crisis.

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    Hoosick Falls residents hold signs during a news conference at the state Capitol in Albany, N.Y., calling for hearings on the state's handling of PFOA contamination in drinking water in their town on June 15.
    Mike Groll/AP
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Congress is getting involved with tap water, a sign government officials are responding to the disaster of dirty water in Flint, Mich., by cleaning house. 

Congress has asked officials in the New York and at the US Environmental Protection Agency to report on how they handled a recent scandal in the state. The residents of the Hoosick Falls, N.Y., brought questions about the quality of their drinking water to the attention of local officials in the summer of 2014. Officials initially told the inhabitants of the factory village their water was safe.  

Upon further investigation, environmental regulators found high levels of Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in the factory village's drinking water. PFOA is a chemical once used to manufacture nonstick coatings, such as Teflon, until regulators realized it can contaminate drinking water.

Government transparency and timely communication of the problem are at the root of the congressional concern.

"The Committee is concerned that a sluggish response to the crisis in Hoosick Falls at the state and county levels caused residents to remain exposed to dangerous levels of PFOA for longer than was necessary," the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform wrote to the governor's office. "The Committee is looking into whether residents received misleading information that indicated the water posed no health risks, which exacerbated the crisis."

The House committee is investigating the EPA response as well, noting the agency became aware of problems with the water in December 2014 but did not notify village officials until November 2015. EPA Regional Director Judith Enck said she learned of the problem only in November, after a state attorney brought her a report. 

New York's Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said the state will cooperate with the congressional request for information. The state has promised to further investigate the presence of PFOA in the village's public and private wells, and signed agreements with Honeywell International and Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics to clean up the mess. The governor has also called for the development of national standards on the chemical PFOA. 

"We hope the end result is that Congress and the federal government act swiftly to prioritize and to implement uniform, nationwide regulations of PFOA and similar, currently unregulated contaminants," a spokesman for the governor said Thursday. 

This is one of many calls for increased government transparency coming in the aftermath of a water scandal in Flint, Mich., where too little oversight on water quality left 200 children diagnosed with high levels of lead in their blood. As the incident unfolded, advocates and the public began to wonder if poor communication by the state's government – characterized by two watchdog groups as the nation's least transparent – played a role, as The Christian Science Monitor's Jessica Mendoza reported. 

"If there is a silver lining in what is clearly a tragedy in Flint, it's that freedom of information, accountability, and transparency are getting noticed," Jane Briggs-Bunting, president of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit advocacy that promotes government transparency, told The Monitor. "People are saying, 'You know, maybe this could've been avoided.'"

The EPA has asked all state water regulators to publish an online inventory so owners of older homes can find out whether their water still passes through lead pipes.

Although water systems were required to create these inventories in the 1990s, many were never finished or have since become outdated. Some states have resisted the call to post such information online because of concerns about technology availability or privacy. The EPA has told local governments to redact personal information if needed, but to publish the information. 

"It's one of a number of transparency elements that we see as really important," EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Joel Beauvais told the Associated Press. 

The inventories do not replace existing rules that water companies inform residents directly if more than 10 percent of sampled homes fail tests for lead content, but rather they would offer water users the added protection of knowing for themselves how clean their water is.   

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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