Know Your Rights to Safe Drinking Water
Q: I receive water from a public water system. How do I know it is safe?
A: If a water system supplies water for drinking and cooking to at least 15 service connections or serves at least 25 people for at least 60 days each year, it is a public water system.
Every public water system must periodically test its water to confirm compliance with federal drinking water standards. These standards are known as Maximum Contaminant Levels or “MCLs.” EPA has established MCLs for such contaminants as viruses and bacteria, metals, pesticides and herbicides, chemical solvents and radioactive materials. If drinking water is found to be in violation of any MCL, the public water system must notify all users of the system of such violation and must take action to bring the quality of its water back into compliance with the MCL.
In addition, each community water system must also send each user an annual report that contains information on the quality of the water and risks from any contaminants in the water.
Q: I live in a rural area. How do I know my water is safe?
A: Private water systems are regulated by the Ohio Department of Health and county and combined health districts. A private water system is any water system that is not a public water system. Private water systems include individual water sources for farms and rural residences, as well as small water systems for churches, small businesses and other establishments that serve small numbers of users.
Unlike public water systems, private water systems are not normally required to monitor for compliance with MCLs or to send notifications to users. However, if you have a question or concern about the quality of water from your private water system, your local health district can take samples of the water and inform you of the results. The health district may charge a fee for this service. You may also collect your own water samples and have them analyzed at a qualified commercial lab.
Q: What legal rights do I have if my drinking water is not meeting safe standards?
A: If a public water system is in violation of MCLs, notification requirements, or other Safe Drinking Water Act requirements, you may bring a civil lawsuit against the water system. You must provide written notification to U.S. EPA, Ohio EPA, and the public water system at least 60 days before filing such a lawsuit. You may also file a verified complaint with Ohio EPA asking that agency to investigate and take action to correct any violations of Ohio’s safe drinking water rules. If you own a private water system, you may file suit against any party who has contaminated your water. Your local health department, Ohio EPA, or U.S. EPA may also be able to assist in addressing the source of contamination that may be affecting your private water system. Finally, if you have been injured or made sick by unsafe drinking water supplied by a public or private water system, you may bring a court action seeking damages for your injury or illness, seeking damages for your injury or illness against any party who has contaminated your water.
This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was originally prepared by attorney Christopher A. Walker with Van Kley & Walker in Dayton, and updated by attorney Andrea M. Salimbene in the Columbus office of McMahon DeGulis LLP.