It’s tempting but dangerous to dismiss Flint, Mich., as “something that could never happen here.” Even if you believe your water system is immune from the mistakes that caused that city’s public health nightmare from lead-laden water, however, utilities nationwide are under the gun.
The crisis is raising questions that demand answers.
Why, after 30 years of federal regulation designed to protect the public from a metal that EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say is unsafe at any level, are more than 6 million lead service lines — the pipes that carry drinking water from the publicly owned main to privately owned homes and businesses — still used? Do consumer confidence reports go far enough to convey risks? Are the sampling methods used to test for lead trustworthy?
The bottom line is that only about one-half of Americans are very confident their tap water’s safe. According to a February Associated Press-GfK poll, most think Flint’s experience indicates a more widespread problem.
So close and yet so far
In 1986, Congress updated the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 to prohibit installing lead pipes and fixtures in homes and businesses. There are 4 million fewer lead service lines (LSLs) today, but lead is still in the plumbing systems of older homes, schools, and businesses.
In 1991, the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) required utilities to test for lead at customer taps known to have LSLs and prescribed corrosion-control actions if concentrations exceed 15 parts per billion (ppb) in more than 10% of the samples.
The Massachusetts Water Resource Authority (MWRA) has lowered lead levels by more than 90% since then, and other utilities have also had success. However, a March 2016 USA Today NETWORK investigation found almost 2,000 of the nation’s 72,273 public water systems with lead contamination over the action level over the last four years. EPA’s testing protocol is also under scrutiny, as reporting on Flint brought to light errors in sample selection and instructions given to homeowners.
So while the rule has been successful to some extent, health risks remain.
In 1998, EPA sought to educate the public about such risks with the Consumer Confidence Rule, which requires utilities to notify customers if the system exceeds the action level. Even so, lack of communication is a common complaint, especially if a customer’s experience is telling them that something’s wrong.
For example, in Flint, authorities insisted tap water was fine even though it smelled and tasted funny and caused rashes. Residents who say they weren’t warned that street repairs might elevate lead levels sued the City of Chicago this year.
Because the risk lies in service lines and plumbing at the building level, information utilities have offered often doesn’t convey the risk at any single building.
New regulations on the horizon
Rule changes were in the works well before Flint’s crisis began in April 2014. The Lead and Copper Rule Working Group of the National Drinking Water Advisory Council (NDWAC) issued recommendations in August 2015. EPA plans to publish revisions to the LCR for comment in 2017.
“EPA will carefully evaluate these recommendations, national experience in implementing the rule, and Flint’s experience to develop a proposed revision,” says Dan Abrams, special adviser to the agency’s Office of Public Affairs. In the meantime, in February 2016 the agency asked the governors and chief regulators of every primacy state to strengthen implementation of the existing rule. One urges utilities to provide customers with easy access to what they know about the location of service lines.
The U.S. Senate has approved and the House of Representatives is considering the Copper and Lead Evaluation and Reporting Act of 2016 (CLEAR Act), which would require EPA to implement one NDWAC recommendation: set health-based household action levels.
The current action level is based on the 90th percentile of collected samples systemwide, so it’s possible for a building to exceed the action level even when the system as a whole does not.
The household action level would be based on the amount it would take for an infant to have a blood lead level greater than five micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL) based on consumption by an average, healthy infant of formula made with water. Such results would trigger additional notifications to individual homes.
The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology is also looking at how contaminants are detected and monitored from source to tap, how risks are assessed and remediated, and how information is communicated to officials and the public.
When all is said and done, utilities that haven’t located lead service lines and/or developed a plan for removing them will ultimately have to. They’ll have to clearly explain what they’re doing and why. And they’ll have to work harder to teach customers how to protect themselves from the lead plumbing in their homes.
Fortunately, utilities that have gone through the process show how to effectively accomplish these tasks.
Identifying the culprit
About 30% of the nation’s water systems have lead service lines. Most are in the Midwest, Southeast, and Mid-Atlantic.
“Understanding whether you have them, knowing where they are, and making that information available to your public should be on your to-do list,” says MWRA Planning Director Stephen Estes-Smargiassi. “Customers expect it.”
Figuring out where they are can be challenging due to a lack of records. But as the sidebar on page 23 shows, technology and savvy partnerships facilitate the task.
Finding and mapping the lines is only half the battle, however. Plan on making the information public. This is another NDWAC recommendation and also recently requested by the EPA, but is also important to maintaining public confidence.
“If you don’t make it available, customers will assume the worst,” says Estes-Smargiassi. “They’ll seek information from other parties.”
For an example of what to strive for, look to the Lead Service Map page on the Boston Water & Sewer Commission website. Customers enter their address to find out if they have lead service lines and can apply for the Lead Replacement Incentive Program.
All indications are that, ultimately, removal and replacement will no longer be triggered by failing to meet the current LCR action level. Both the NDWAC and American Water Works Association (AWWA) want all service lines removed, nationwide.
“I can’t imagine EPA will accept rule changes that don’t include removing the line from the main to the house,” according to the MWRA’s Estes-Smargiassi. “They’re a liability. If the line’s not there, you won’t have a problem if your source water changes or you change treatments to deal with another problem.”
The NDWAC proposes a schedule based on three-year milestones beginning 36 months after the revised LCR’s effective date. Because some building owners will not want or can’t afford replacement, utilities would be required to conduct ongoing outreach. Eventually, ownership and/or circumstance will change and the line can be replaced.
In the meantime, to minimize costs to all parties, utilities are combining financial incentives with carefully coordinated maintenance.
The MWRA recently approved $100 million in interest-free loans to member water communities. Boston provides a $2,000 credit to homeowners who use a utility-approved contractor to replace service lines and an interest-free loan for up to 48 months.
After replacing lines for more than two decades, the Green Bay Water Utility (GBWU) in Green Bay, Wis., estimates 1,700 remain.
The utility gave public works a GIS map of service lines to reduce service line replacement costs, about $5,000 per line, by coordinating replacement and street repairs. A map on the utility’s website shows known lead service lines, but managers aren’t sure how many exist on the property owner’s side and have undertaken efforts to find out. When the utility’s lead service lines are replaced, the property owner’s line is replaced at the same time.
Sixty miles southwest of Flint, the City of Lansing Board of Water & Light (BWL) has spent $42 million over 12 years replacing almost 14,000 service lines. The final 500 are scheduled to be replaced by June 2017.
Lansing owns the lines, which makes removal and replacement much easier, but is also lowering costs with a tool that’s available to other utilities for a nominal cost of $600 (see Resources at go.hw.net/leadresources).
Instead of tearing up streets, driveways, and front yards, the utility’s trenchless cable pull method requires just two holes: one in the street to uncover the service main connection and another in the curb’s right of way to access the service box.
“You excavate both ends instead of digging a trench,” says BWL Public Affairs Director Stephen Serkaian. The old pipe is attached to the front end of a fabricated cutter tool that looks like a torpedo. A backhoe hydraulically pulls the old lead line out to the street, with the new copper line attached to the back of the cutter tool.
The process reduces an $8,000-to-$9,000 job to about $3,500.
BWL helped Flint by manufacturing additional cutter tools, training contractors, and calculating that replacing 15,000 service lines in one year would cost $55 million.
Sharing your plan with the public
When a water crisis occurs, customers often complain they weren’t adequatelyinformed about the risks of lead exposure and ways to minimize them.
“Managing and mitigating the potential risk is a shared responsibility of EPA and state drinking water regulators, public health officials, water suppliers, and the public,” says MWRA’s Estes-Smargiassi.
If adopted, NDWAC’s recommendations will require utilities to contact customers with lead service lines, describe the risk of lead in drinking water, and invite them to participate in the replacement program.
Ensure your utility’s communications explain how to reduce risk from lead exposure at the tap. Providing more information on the risks of lead and lead service lines in the Consumer Confidence Report is a good first step. So is targeting outreach to vulnerable customer groups, such as pregnant women and families with infants and young children.
Four years ago, GBWU partnered with local health agencies on brochures, public meetings, and media to explain how to guard against exposure to lead in water, paint, and soil. General manager Nancy Quirk, PE, says the best response came from direct mail to homeowners suspected of having lead service lines.
This supports the idea that providing information specific to a building location is the most effective way to communicate the health risks from lead.
Finishing the job once and for all
Flint was a wakeup call. Even if lead’s not an issue for your municipality, transparency and communication are key to maintaining public trust and confidence. It will be a long time before all of the nation’s lead pipes and plumbing fixtures are removed, so customers need to know their risks and how to reduce their exposure.
In the meantime, there’s somewhat of a silver lining. “Legislative offices were more willing to talk with us this year than in the past,” says Quirk, who went to Washington, D.C., in April for AWWA’s annual Fly-In.
Thus, the political environment is right to ask for the funds necessary to update your community’s drinking water infrastructure.
Joanne Costin is a freelance writer based in Palatine, Ill. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.