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Rep. David Zimmerman introduced a bill that would exempt some small private schools, churches and businesses that have private drinking water wells on their property.

THE ISSUE

State Rep. David Zimmerman, of East Earl, is the primary sponsor of House Bill 707, which would amend 1984’s Pennsylvania Safe Drinking Water Act. The proposed legislation would “exempt the water systems of some private schools, churches and businesses from state oversight, even though they are defined as public water systems,” LNP’s Hurubie Meko reported Friday.

The first sentence of Zimmerman’s January memorandum introducing HB 707 states: “The events in Flint, Michigan and elsewhere illustrate the grave importance of safe drinking water in our communities.”

We agree. Strongly.

Unfortunately, that marks the end of our agreement with Zimmerman on this topic.

In the memorandum, the lawmaker decries the Pennsylvania Safe Drinking Water Act’s “overly broad definition” of community water systems. The 1984 act defines them as public water systems with at least 15 service connections used by year-round residents, or systems that regularly serve at least 25 year-round residents.

“Under this definition,” Zimmerman argues, “a private school, church, or business that uses its own water well generally ... (is) regulated accordingly, even though they are not what most of us would consider to be water purveyors or public water systems.”

Being “regulated accordingly” calls for stringent water testing by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Zimmerman doesn’t think that’s right. “Our residents and businesses are subject to ever-increasingly rigorous and more costly regulations,” he wrote in the memorandum. “While we must ensure the safest of drinking water, we do not need to hold one-room schools to the standards as our public water companies.”

Yes we do, Rep. Zimmerman.

We do need to hold them to stringent standards.

Water safety matters everywhere, whether it’s a city system serving tens of thousands or a one-room schoolhouse.

Zimmerman is a foe of government regulatory overreach. In an op-ed for LNP last month, he wrote: “As anyone who runs a business or tried to start one knows, nonelected bureaucrats entrenched in federal agencies wield incredible power over businesses, and ordinary citizens for that matter, because of the deference federal courts give to regulators. This has led to vast volumes of regulation that make life even more difficult for small business owners who struggle to ensure compliance.”

But his passion — his questioning the need for regulation — is misplaced when it comes to our water systems.

Protecting our drinking water is crucial. No entity is too small for government regulation. Being small is not a good reason for doing too little.

Saying he’s working on behalf of his constituents, Zimmerman counters that these “institutions want good clean water, but they want to do it on their own and they want to take the liability onto themselves.” Some, he told LNP, find the regulations too cumbersome and/or too expensive.

This isn’t a matter of what an institution wants — it’s a matter of what is necessary. And we don’t think cost should be the concern when protecting the health of our populace.

Moreover, we don’t think any institution can simply say it will assume liability ... and let that be the final word.

More oversight — not less — of drinking water is needed in our state. A 2018 study out of the University of California, Irvine, declared that Pennsylvania had the third worst tap water in the nation. That calls for boosting safety efforts, not adding exemptions.

Yet Zimmerman’s bill, as Meko reported, does not require exempt institutions to regularly test their water. Alan Peterson, a county physician and member of the Lancaster Lead Coalition, countered that preventative measures are the best and safest practice.

“It’s better to prevent these things, rather than to ‘pick up the pieces,’ ” Peterson told Meko, adding that lead poisoning, as just one example, does not always present visible symptoms and, without regular testing, could poison many users of even a small well system long before it’s detected.

Finally, there’s this: Zimmerman’s bill might serve only to switch regulatory oversight from Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C.

Lisa Daniels, director of the Bureau of Safe Drinking Water at the state DEP, said at a hearing that HB 707 would not achieve its intended goal. It cannot alter the federal definition of what constitutes a public water system and “as a result, the bill would not be effective in exempting these facilities from all environmental compliance obligations. Instead, it would only serve to move oversight from the state level to the federal level, requiring them to work with EPA instead of DEP,” Daniels said.

That would make compliance more cumbersome. And more expensive.

Zimmerman should certainly look into that possible unintended consequence before letting the bill advance further.

We’d prefer the bill — in any form — not advance at all. We must strive for greater safety and oversight for our drinking water in Pennsylvania. Not less.