Public awareness about the dangers of lead in drinking water grew exponentially after the Flint, Mich., water crisis.
In 2016, news broke that people were getting sick, losing their hair and breaking out in rashes as a result of high concentrations of lead in Flint’s water. Criminal and civil lawsuits were filed, a slew of congressional hearings were held, and a $97-million lead service line replacement program was quickly put in place for the city.
During that same year, a USA Today study found that at least 2,000 water systems across the country contained lead concentrations above permissible limits. To replace all lead lines in the U.S. was forecast to cost up to $30 billion, according to a 2016 American Water Works Association (AWWA) study.
Among other issues, it became clear that the Lead and Copper Rule, a 1991 regulation meant to protect the public from lead contamination, had not been properly enforced or followed in many communities, and that modifications were necessary. The public trust was shattered, says Marc Edwards, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech University who has been an outspoken critic of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and some water utilities for lax enforcement of the rule.
The public has “justifiably” lost faith in the government and water utilities, says Edwards, who was ENR’s Award of Excellence winner in 2017 for his efforts to fight for safe water in Flint (ENR 4/17-24/17 p. 30). “My concern is we shouldn’t have a [regulation] that is routinely broken, as was the case with the Lead and Copper Rule.” A revised Lead and Copper Rule is set to be finalized this summer, though it doesn’t resolve all the concerns Edwards and others have.
Other things have been changing as well. Several cities, including Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Denver, Newark and Trenton, N.J., and Lansing and Grand Rapids, Mich., have implemented ambitious proactive programs to address lead in water systems.
But others are lagging. “Some seem to only want to bury their heads in the sand,” says Erik Olson, senior strategic director for health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We see some cities moving forward, [but] some only when facing lawsuits.” His group has successfully collaborated with public health and labor groups to file lawsuits in several cities, including Flint, Newark and Pittsburgh, to speed lead service line replacements or advocate for other program improvements.
In New Orleans, potential violations of the existing Lead and Copper Rule were highlighted in a 2017 report from the city’s former Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux. It was never publicly released, but was reported by Buzzfeed in late 2019.
The report found the city did not collect the required 50% of samples from high-risk homes with lead pipes or copper pipes with lead solder. As a result, the sampling may have missed homes with high lead concentrations, and many New Orleans residents “may have been drinking significantly lead-contaminated water for years without knowing it due to faulty testing” says Olson. He did his own analysis of the IG report, and agrees with Quatrevaux’s findings that some sampling was likely done incorrectly.
Adrienne Katner, an assistant professor of environmental safety and health at Louisiana State University, who has spearheaded research into elevated water lead levels in New Orleans and surrounding areas, says the fact that the IG’s report was never released highlights a lack of transparency and enforcement of the Lead and Copper Rule.
Richard Rainey, a spokesman for the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans, told ENR the city complied with state and federal requirements, and that the water in New Orleans is “safe to drink.” The Louisiana Dept. of Health has consistently certified the water testing results were below the EPA’s action level for copper and lead, he says. And because the current IG does not agree with the findings and recommendations of Quatrevaux’s report, he adds, the report was never released.
Long Overdue Revision
The Lead and Copper Rule was last modified in 2007. Environmentalists say the revised rule, proposed October 2019, will weaken public health protections. But water utilities are gearing up for some stringent new requirements. The proposed rule requires all water systems to develop a public inventory of lead service lines within three years. All service lines of unknown composition would be assumed to be lead and therefore require replacement.
The proposal would also create a new “trigger level” of 10 parts per billion (ppb) of lead, at which point a water system would have to identify ways to reduce lead levels. Methods might include reevaluating current treatment or conducting a corrosion control study.
The proposed rule, however, does not change the 15 ppb of lead action level. Once lead is found at that concentration, a utility must implement additional water sampling and quality monitoring, corrosion control, public education and complete lead service line replacements.
Sandy Kutzing, an environmental engineer and principal at CDM Smith who has worked on lead programs in both Newark and Trenton, says the new 10-ppb trigger level will likely spur more water sampling requirements for utilities.
The proposed rule also would lengthen the time period for lead line replacements. Under the existing rule, water systems with lead above 15 ppb must replace 7% of their lead service lines each year for as long as they exceed 15 ppb. The new rule lowers the amount to 3% each year, extending the time utilities have to replace all lead service lines by 20 years.
NRDC’s Olson says the trigger level complicates the rule. He adds that cities do not need 33 years to replace lead service lines. Flint is expected to complete its $97-million lead service line replacement program in less than five, and Newark is well beyond the halfway point of an aggressive 30-month, $120-million lead service line replacement program.
Steve Via, director of federal relations at AWWA, which represents water utilities, agrees the new rule could create confusion. The regulation’s language is unclear, he says, and as a result, regional regulators could focus on the “letter of the rule” rather than whether utilities are actually moving forward in good faith with lead service line and corrosion control programs. “It creates a bunch of administrative details that could impede the overall goals.”
Moreover, Via says the requirement to treat all “unknown” service lines as lead service lines could be counterproductive. There are ways to determine which areas are most likely to have lead lines, based on when the homes were built and where lead has been found in other areas.
Determining the composition of service lines is challenging for many older communities where records were not well maintained before the Lead and Copper Rule. “It’s a very heavy lift,” for the utilities, Kutzing says.
In Newark and Trenton, CDM Smith adapted GIS software to pinpoint exactly where lead service lines are located. When contractors identify a home on a street that has a lead line, they enter that information into the GIS system, creating a datapoint that can be seen by other construction workers in the vicinity in real time. It can create more efficiency, Kutzing says.
Some utilities find their hands tied by state laws that prevent them from using taxpayer funds for work on private property. Dan Duffy, manager of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority’s lead program, says although the agency has had its program in place since 2016, it initially could only complete replacements on the public side because a Pennsylvania law prevented taxpayer funds to be used on private projects. That meant that most of the replacements were partial replacements, which are known to temporarily increase lead levels in homes connected to the line.
In 2017, the state legislature changed the law to allow private-side replacements. Since the replacement program began, the authority has removed more than 6,900 public-side lines and 4,300 private-side lines. It worked with engineers Mott MacDonald for corrosion control and with AECOM as construction manager. A settlement required by the Pittsburgh Public Utility Commission, approved by the end of March, requires all replacements going forward to be full-line replacements. Private-side replacements will be made somewhat easier and more cost efficient as the agency performs full lead service line replacements when necessary as part of a larger, $65-million water main line replacement program.
One common concern among water utilities, environmental advocates and even lawmakers is the need for more funding. To that end, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved $2.5 billion in state funding for drinking water infrastructure on May 6.
Diane VanDe Hei, CEO of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies’ says even more money will be needed. In written testimony to the Senate committee April 22, she cited an AMWA/AWWA report that found COVID-19 will reduce drinking water system revenue by $13.9 billion—or nearly 17% of the sector’s annual total. That will delay capital expenditures in drinking water infrastructure by as much as $5 billion over one year, she said. The bill must still pass the full Senate.
LSU’s Katner says although the political system and players in New Orleans might be unique, lead in water systems is “a nationwide problem.” She adds: “The big problem is the lack of funding and competent policing by state officials. Water systems are over 100 years old in many towns.”