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It's time to figure out what victory in NE Fresno water mess looks like

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Wednesday was another memorable day on the Northeast Fresno discolored water front.

We’re getting closer to clarifying the issue’s essential question.

First, the news.

City Hall on Wednesday issued a news release saying the test of a urine sample from a resident in Northeast Fresno showed a ‘slightly elevated’ level of lead.

Here’s the new release’s headline: “City, County, State, Federal Officials Discuss Report of ‘Slightly Elevated’ Lead Test in NE Fresno.”

The body of the news release (written, if I’m not mistaken, by Mark Standriff, the city’s director of communications) was as carefully worded as the headline. Here is a major portion of the statement:

“City of Fresno officials are working closely with the Fresno County Health Department, State Water Resources Control Board and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding a report of a test that shows a ‘slightly elevated’ level of lead in a patient’s urine sample.

“On Tuesday, August 2, 2016, representatives from the EPA in San Francisco received an email regarding a report of lead burdening for a resident in Northeast Fresno. Consistent with the collaboration and cooperation that has been exercised by city, county, state, and federal officials during the City’s discolored water investigation, the EPA forwarded the message immediately to local representatives of the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB,) and the SWRCB immediately advised City and County officials of the report. Federal, state, city, and county officials were in communication about the report within 1 hour of the resident submitting the communication to the EPA.

“In the resident’s report to the EPA, there is no information regarding the type of testing that was conducted, the level of lead defined as ‘slightly elevated,’ or information about the person who was tested.

“The County reported to the City that it has not yet received any information about the blood level data for this individual, and depending upon the level reported, the County Health Department will take the appropriate action to investigate the environmental conditions that may be contributing to the reported blood lead levels. As has been the case throughout this investigation, the City and State will support the County to conduct a thorough and complete investigation.

“The primary authority having jurisdiction for investigating cases of elevated blood lead levels in Fresno County is the Fresno County Health Department. As required by law, testing labs must report all blood lead level results to the State, and those results are then reported to the County. In cases when a blood lead level report for an individual is above 4.5 microgram per deciliters (µg/dL,) the State will notify the County within two weeks of such results, and the County will initiate an outreach and education process with the individual about the blood test results. For blood lead level results below 4.5 µg/dL, the State reports these results to the County on a quarterly basis.”

The statement raises as many questions as it answers. No surprise there. This discolored-water issue is a complex combination of policy, procedure and politics.

The Bee’s Tim Sheehan took the news release and delivered another superb story on this latest turn of events. Sheehan among other things explored the county health department’s measured reaction to test and the science for testing levels of lead in a human being.

At this point, allow me to present a written response to my CVObserver story of Wednesday morning on the Northeast discolored water issue. It’s from a reader named Karen, and it hit home for me.

Karen wrote: “Per the EPA’s website: ‘The Safe Drinking Water Act requires the EPA to determine the level of contaminants in drinking water at which no adverse health effects are likely to occur with an adequate margin of safety. These non-enforceable health goals, based solely on possible health risks, are called maximum contaminant level goals. The EPA has set the maximum contaminant level for lead in drinking water at ZERO because lead is a toxic metal that can be harmful to human health even at low exposure levels. Lead is persistent, and it can bioaccumulate in the body over time.’

“The EPA Action Level is an enforcement level, but everyone, including City Officials, need to understand that ZERO Lead in drinking water is the only acceptable level!”

Wednesday evening I read the City Hall news release, Sheehan’s story and Karen’s response, one after the other.

My question: What is our exit strategy?

Seriously – I wonder if anyone in a position of authority has thought about what constitutes “victory” in this battle against bad water in a small number of homes in North Fresno.

You might say: The answer is easy. We demand perfect water out of every household tap 100% of the time. And we demand that City Hall provide this service at a low cost.

I’d say: Sounds great. How?

I discussed these issues with key city officials last week during what reporters call a “backgrounder” – a freewheeling review of issues with the tape recorder turned off (tape recorder – I’m revealing my age).

I took away several assumptions. 1.) Many issues are still in flux. 2.) Everyone up and down the government food chain, from the feds to City Hall, recognizes that if the public insists on 100% water perfection 100% of the time for 100% of the people, then the public will have to give to government an array of power and funding that would be both stunning and unprecedented. A government operating in the real world can achieve a goal of providing “safe” drinking water for everyone but not “perfect” water. It’s just not practical to demand perfection. 3.) Somebody in that governmental food chain, somebody with the clout to make a decision and have it stick, does have a crisis-ending list that, once everything is checked off, official “victory” can be declared.

That check list is our exit strategy for the Northeast Fresno Discolored Water Fight.

Inevitably, the list will make someone unhappy.

But that’s life, Uncle Sam. It’s time to show us the list.

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

3 Comments

  1. And Holly Carter is the one driving this “lead detected in urine” test story. Is she trying to position herself as a write in candidate for the council district seat in November?

  2. That is pretty funny, Dan Waterhouse. Could it be that some people in the world actually care about the community with no ulterior motives? Apparently that is too far removed from the minds of the political class.

  3. Dan Waterhouse… don’t be a douchebag. We’ve been fighting this for 12 years. Holly is in the neighborhood, knows the ins & outs of City Hall and has helped us get this health issue on the front burner. Having zits like you make such remarks only reminds me of how much I dislike snarky doychebags. Maybe you should be asking the same thing of Perea who only showed up once to a meeting because there were TV cameras. I’m in the exact center of this debacle looking out. If I felt Ms. Carter was doing anything but good for us, she’d be gone.

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