Bishop: Red Tape for Rednecks . . . Who Knew

Thursday, July 20, 2017


Earned Media

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Johnny Nicholas

In my inveterate quest for earned media linking musical touring patterns to politics, it seems impossible not to observe that ‘Rhode Islander’ Johnny Nicholas is back from Texas this week (Pawcatuck, CT is, after all part of ‘metropolitan’ Westerly – where you missed Johnny last night at  Blues on the Beach in Misquamicut). He’s playing tonight, Thursday the 20, at the Towers in Narragansett (where dinner and a drink at the Coast Guard House is but 10 steps away), tomorrow, Friday the 21st, at O’Shea’s in West Dennis. Who says summer vacation music is limited to Crosby, Stills and Nash covers, when the traditional playing and original music of this guitar legend is what’s on offer?

Johnny and his late wife Brenda pioneered a small restaurant outside Fredericksburg in hill country, appropriately enough dubbed the Hilltop Café. It is an intimate setting where I’ve watched Johnny play with some of the greatest musicians in the country who make a point of stopping through despite the fact that the Hilltop is on a road to nowhere. Musically, its on the map.

There is no stage, just a piano in the corner and a couple stools that see some of the best butts music has to offer. I had a trip out to the Hilltop one night from Austin with world class accordion player Joel Guzman (who fortunately directed me where to find the worst coffee in Texas on the way home or I wouldn’t be writing this today) and the two vamped all night, including treating us to Guzman’s own musical composition Padre prays for rain, a traditional homily of the desert southwest. Rockabilly great Bill Kirchen hangs low key at the Hilltop. It just doesn’t quit.

But apparently that’s just what the state of Texas would like to have happen. Unlike Rhode Island, where we turned our music clubs over to real estate developers to get rid of the riff raff, Texas hasn’t developed an aversion to music. Rather they are busy proving their bureaucracies are just as hardheaded as any other state in the nation, a sad state of affairs for the republic of Texas. Johnny’s club is on the chopping block because it serves more than 25 people more than 60 days a year, meaning that the well at his small restaurant meets the definition of a “public water system”.

Unearned Trouble

Of course that has been true since the definition was adopted in 1975. What has happened recently that has made Johnny sing the regulatory blues? Back then, EPA took on real problems. The Cuyahoga River catching fire was no natural event. But what no one suspected, when there was widespread public support for the agency and its mission back then, was that when it ran out of burning rivers, EPA would eventually get around to putting the little guy in front of its regulatory firing squad.

Now, you might say, being a small establishment is no excuse for poisoning your patrons, but you’d be wrong because Johnny Nicholas has done no such thing. His water is regularly tested by a state certified lab and meets all drinking water standards, but the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ, which like DOH in RI exercises the EPA regulatory authority under the SDWA) does not recognize the tests because the Hilltop does not chlorinate its water, they use a UV filtration system.

A chlorination system is costly, but sullying the taste of his Edwards Aquifer water is far more a concern.  Most businesses know it is easier to borrow the money and knuckle under to the man than be crucified as an anti-regulatory martyr. So one has to appreciate when people like Johnny take the trouble to make the point that a one size fits all regulation that treats his isolated restaurant on the same basis as an urban water system serving hundreds of thousands of customers is what is wrong with this country, not what is right about it.

Whats in the water?

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Speaking of urban systems, Providence Water has come under fire recently under the rubric that we are but a Flint in waiting. It would be awfully convenient for juxtaposition to complain that we let cities like Providence poison thousands while a responsible restaurant out in the sticks is put to the regulatory sword. But the notion that Providence Water has a lead problem is but the latest over hyped melodrama.

Providence Water has done itself no favors by trying to simplify the problem to the so called ‘first flush’. That doesn’t refer to the toilet, although flushing the toilet before you draw water for drinking could be part of a routine of running water that has been sitting in the pipes overnight to flush lead out. But the issue is more complicated than that although perhaps not perfectly explicated by crusader Johanna Harris who has the bit between her teeth on this issue.

Ms. Harris correctly points that some of the Providence Water samples that exceeded the lead “action level” either didn’t appear to be first draw samples, i.e. those most associated with house piping and the small individual branches from city mains and/or appeared to be from homes that show as already having had the lead service replaced. The problem with this map showing what the utility has upgraded is utility upgrades only go to the curb, there is no information on whether the property owner replaced the private lead pipe running from the curb into the house. Further, even replacing that pipe does not replace all lead that may run in the house or copper pipes that were joined with lead based solder. On top of that, brass pipes, fittings and fixtures actually contain lead, more of yore and less lately. (Although the most recent federal stupidity was to ban even the 2% lead that made brass more malleable increasing the price of such fixtures and limiting availability of these corrosion resistant fittings while not address the issue of older solders that were 60 to 80% lead and pure lead lines – maybe Trump can make Brass great again).

Despite these confounders, Harris concluded that there must be a ‘system’ problem. This wasn’t just old pipes and fittings in houses. But there are no lead mains in the system. There are actually wood pipes and corroding cast iron, but no lead. And tests drawn directly from the mains have never shown any measurable lead levels, never mind “actionable levels”.

But older homes with lead piping and solder and brass fittings and figments have manifested lead levels in excess of the 15 parts per billion (ppb) action threshold established by EPA. This is unsurprising, as various changes in disinfection and anti-corrosion regimes can cause more leaching of metals into the water and a combination of chemical and physical disturbances, ironically disturbances often associated with replacement of antiquated mains and lead branches, can lead to elevated lead levels not only as a result of the higher metal dissolution potential, but through the scouring of scale in remant lead piping that has actually limited contact of the water with underlying metals.

Skepticism is necessary

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It is not a sad thing that the first instinct we should have is to doubt the government. Some would point out that is in fact the crusade on which Johanna Harris is engaged. She is speaking her truth to the powerful at Providence Water (which, in RI speak, is quasi-governmental) who say there is a limited problem. But she is accepting without criticism or comment the notion that the EPA has set the standard right to begin with and isn’t unnecessarily causing mass hysteria, as in Flint, for little reason.

The real question that should have been asked in Flint and that we should be asking in Providence is whether these levels are really of concern. Just as in the case of the Hilltop Café, where the water quality is fine, but regulatory authorities are rattling their sabers, we must be skeptical of these technical thresholds for action. The vast, vast majority of children in Flint, who became a widely tested segment of the population, did not show elevated lead levels. In fact, the average proportion of children in Flint testing for elevated lead levels during the ‘crisis’ was 4.0%; and in the worst neighborhoods the rate of elevated childhood lead levels was 6.3% (figure 1). At the turn of this century, around 2000, the average for ALL American children was 8.6%!

So the results in the hardest hit neighborhoods in Flint were better than the American average not 20 years ago! And in the dark ages of the 1970s, when the present generation of policymakers were maturing their cognitive faculties, 88% of children exceeded 10 ppb. Notice that the Flint results and the 2000 nationwide comparison are based on exceeding only 5 ppb.

Those worst in Flint neighborhood numbers did show a rise from 2.5% and there is little question that there is a correlation with the change in water supply. Although, children in the region but outside the Flint water service also showed statistically significant increases during the same period. Minor points like the time of year of sampling actually matter as childhood lead levels peak in June and are at their minimum in March, according to the CDC (the reason for this is not established although researchers speculate it is related to more outdoor activity where longstanding deposition of lead on soils and surfaces exposes children).

And, of that small percentage of children in Flint presenting with elevated lead levels, fully 3/4s of them were in the 5 to 9 ppb range – one not even discussed for intervention and interpretation by the CDC in 2007 and a range where some tests are notorious for overestimating concentrations in the first place.

Finally, the silly notion that Flint is some lesson in environmental justice -- that we are allowing poor folks to be beset by lead and not rich people -- was a figment of the imagination made quite clear by the Providence sampling. Here, the difficulties of operating a water system with changing disinfection and corrosion regimes, disturbances from old main failure to infrastructure upgrades have resulted in the East Side – you know, where the rich folks live -- consistently sampling with the highest incidence of actionable lead levels comparable to Flint, according to Harris’ work. It is just plain hard to run an old urban water system accommodating new regulations and technology without occasionally having system conditions that cause elevated but not generally dangerous lead readings. And when such indications appear, system operaters tinker with their operation to bring those levels down.

The one facet of the Providence data that Johanna Harris presents that she neglects to focus shows just that. The 90th percentile of sampling in Providence – the calculation from which the EPA action threshold derives -- generally has seen a significant decline since 2014 essentially down to the action threshold from as much as double that in the years immediately prior (figure 2, source, Ms. Harris’ Providence Rules blog) This suggests that delicate balancing of the system operation can reduce lead. The Providence water system has slightly reduced pH at the beginning of this decade (to 9.6) trying to limit corrosion in cast iron, but this very slightly more acidic water leaches more lead. So in March of 2013 Providence water returned the operating pH for delivered water to 10.4 and, as these 90th percentile tests show, the action triggers essentially disappeared.  Occasional outliers are out there. While levels in Flint weren’t generally much different from Providence’s results with the higher pH, a single home in Flint presented with truly excessive levels, in the hundreds to a thousand ppb. So taking occasional advantage of individualized testing that Providence Water offers below cost (resulting in many samples that do not have an address reported when disclosing public data) is reasonable prophylaxis, but it is numbers in the hundreds of ppb that should get your attention, not 15 or even 30.

So what is Providence Water’s problem?

But, Providence Water is guilty of something, which is relying a little too heavily on the old saw that first flush, i.e. running the water until cold in the morning before drinking, protects its water users from lead levels that exceed the action threshold. It helps, but complete replacement of lead lines, lead soldered pipe and brass would be necessary to get to next to no lead. This may or may not be justified depending on how whacked out about lead you are, but it is, generally speaking, not Providence Water’s problem. Asking Providence Water to do more than replace lead tangents as far as the curb (which it is doing with main replacements for about 15 miles of service a year, focusing on the oldest mains) is like saying National Grid should go into everyone’s old house and replace the knob and tube wiring.

If the city utility were truly transparent, they would instead point out that the action thresholds themselves don’t pose any threat to users, were not associated with truly negative pathologies in Flint or elsewhere and that a long arc plan for infrastructure improvement that will replace aging mains and offers property owners the opportunity to cooperate with replacement of their branch lines is the correct course of action while the utility continues to seek the best balance in disinfection, corrosion prevention and water taste (which after all is a quality as important as absurdly low action thresholds). Taste matters -- to Johnny Nicholas with his ‘public system’ where he’s making a stand in Texas -- and it ought to matter to Providence Water and its users, probably more than modest tripping of the action threshold for lead.   

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Brian Bishop is on the board of OSTPA and has spent 20 years of activism protecting property rights, fighting overregulation and perverse incentives in tax policy. 


Related Slideshow: FY18 House Finance Budget

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The state's community college is poised to be the sole beneficiary of the Governor's Promise scholarship program.

It would make Rhode Island the fourth state to have tuition-free community college, allowing every resident the opportunity to earn an associate's degree tuition free. There is no means testing for the program and few standards.

The cost would be roughly $3 million in the FY18 (for the first cohort of students) and then $6 million the following year there are two classes. 

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State Government 

As part of negotiations -- and the fiscal realities facing Rhode Island with a nearly $140 million shortfally, the Speaker announced Thursday that $25 million will be cut in general spending.

"It's something we discussed with the Governor and she thinks she can make [it] work," said Matteillo. 

Also on the chopping block -- funding for the legislative office to the tune of $2 million. 

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Elderly and Disabled Bus Riders 

After levying fares on some of the most needy RIPTA bus riders (the elderly and disabled) for the first time this past year, which resulted in strong public outcry, the House Finance budget contains just over $3 million  -- for each of the next two years -- to refund the program this coming year. 

WATCH: Opponents of RIPTA Fare Hikes to Rally at RI State House Wednesday Afternoon

Mattiello noted that after the two years is up, it is up to the Governor to find the funding. 

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Governor Raimondo

On Thursday, Raimondo learned she is poised to get a piece (jCCRI) of her free college tuition proposal, which had been a major focal point of her budget proposal - and political strategy. 

On the flip side, she is tasked with finding $25 million in government spending to cut, in order to balance the budget. 

Unlike the May estimating conference, where Rhode Island revenues were found to be off nearly $100 million plus, the Governor can't say she didn't see this  coming.

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Medical Marijuana Expansion

In June, Raimondo called for an increase in medical marijuana dispensaries and an increase in licensing fees to generate $1.5 million in revenue for the state. 

She called for "no less than six licensed compassion centers."

On Thursday, Mattiello said it was not in the budget, due the proposal's late timing.

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Davies High School

The House finance budget contains additional help for manufacturing, including $3.6 million to upgrade facilities at Davies Career and Tech.

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Commerce Corporation

While Mattiello made scant mention of cuts in the briefing Thursday - save for the $25 million out of government spending -- the question was raised as to where the rest of the $140 million shortfall will come from. 

"Millions in cuts came from the Commerce Corp budget. The budget kept the Rebuild RI funding, but money for several other Commerce programs were reduced," said Larry Berman, spokesman for Mattiello. 

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Mininum Wage Hike

Workers will be happy, employers might not. 

The FY18 budget proposal calls for a $.50 minimum wage increase as of January 1, 2018, and then an additional $.40 the following year.

Business owners have continuously fought against such hikes. 


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