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Flint crisis draws focus to lead levels, and adequacy of testing, across U.S.

Formerly ignored test results are receiving new scrutiny, and the adequacy of lead testing is itself facing new challenges.

Flint resident Anthony Fordham picks up bottled water from the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan to deliver to a school.
REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

Let’s hope that Minnesota’s municipal water supplies are in generally good shape for lead contamination, as the Strib reported briefly last week.

But as the fallout from the crisis in Flint deepens around the country – with formerly ignored test results receiving new scrutiny, and the testing itself  drawing new challenges – it’s clear that there’s much murkiness in the monitoring of this problem nationwide.

Also, that the issues of lead leaching from water-supply lines may prove to be especially significant in the upper Midwest, where lead pipe and lead-soldered copper pipe remain most common.

Among the few certainties is that many more cities than Flint probably face a long, costly campaign to ensure that this most basic of fluids is in fact as unleaded as most of us had simply assumed.

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“The price tag just to dig up and replace as many as eight million lead service lines into homes and businesses could easily reach tens of billions of dollars,” the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday (subscribers and pay-as-you-go readers can find the story here).

The task is complicated by the fact that utilities and cities often don’t know where such lines are buried. And tens of millions of other water lines have lead solder or fixtures that also can contaminate drinking water. …

“It’s going to be a huge financial challenge,” said G. Tracy Mehan III, executive director for governmental affairs at American Water Works Association, a trade group representing 4,000 utilities across the U.S., not including Flint’s. Just 2% of water utilities surveyed by the group last year said they had the financial resources to cover future pipeline upgrades, which would include replacing lead pipes and fixtures.

Slow replacement of leaded lines

The figure of 8 million lead service lines appears to come from a report published last August by the National Drinking Water Advisory Council, a panel that recommends policy to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And it seems to refer both to lead supply lines, which were phased out after the  late 1920s, and to the lead-soldered  copper supply lines which typically replaced them until they, too, were banned in 1988 under the so-called Lead and Copper Rule:

EPA estimates that there were approximately 10.5 million LSLs in 1988 before the promulgation of the LCR and approximately 7.3 million LSLs now.

The panel’s recommendation is that all of those lines be replaced with lead-free substitutes as soon as possible, instead of waiting for major, persistent problems to appear.

The latter approach is currently the norm, and the upshot is that nearly 30 years after they were banned, the number of lead-soldered lines nationwide has declined by only about 30 percent. And according to an excellent report by Wisconsin Watch, whose findings I’ll return to in a moment, the old lines are especially prevalent in nine Midwestern and Northeastern states, Minnesota among them.

While some cities have been forced into large-scale replacement programs – Washington, D.C., is a prominent example – most have opted for chemical treatments that reduce the lead-leaching properties of water passing through the lines.  

The object is to hold the test results below the EPA limit of 15 parts per billion, set shortly after the lead-copper rule was adopted. According to the Strib story,

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In Minnesota, the first subsequent round of testing found that nearly 12 percent of the state’s community water systems exceeded that level. But they were still far below some of the extremely high levels recently found in Flint.

Gaming the test protocols

Troubling test results in other cities have made the news in the last couple of weeks – they include Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, all mentioned by the Journal, as well as Milwaukee and New Orleans; Greenville and Durham, North Carolina, as well as 16 Ohio cities including  Sebring – and the fundamental adequacy of the tests themselves has come under challenge, too.

Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou of Virginia Tech, a member of the EPA advisory panel, told the UK Guardian that readings are systematically lowered by deliberate departures from the EPA’s collection protocols.

Based on documents concerning municipal testing programs that she had obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Lambrinidou told the Guardian that several cities advise testers to run taps for several minutes before collecting a sample, which flushes lead out of the lines, or to remove filters and aerators, the difficulty of which might discourage homeowners from bothering to test at all. Some testing programs provide collection vessels with openings so small they are difficult to use.

Many of these steps have been officially, and specifically, criticized by the EPA, she said, but they persist anyway. In Michigan, pre-flushing of pipes was recommended in Grand Rapids, Andover, Muskegon, Holland, Jackson and Detroit, the latter recommending a full five-minute flush.

There is no way that Flint is a one-off. There are many ways to game the system. In Flint, they went to test neighbourhoods where they knew didn’t have a problem. You can also flush the water to get rid of the lead. If you flush it before sampling, the problem will go away.

The EPA has completely turned its gaze away from this. There is no robust oversight here, the only oversight is from the people getting hurt. Families who get hurt, such as in Flint, are the overseers. It’s an horrendous situation. The system is absolutely failing.

For a close-up look at how another Midwestern state has been handling a lead-pipe problem that is no cinch, I highly recommend Wisconsin Watch’s “Failure at the Faucet” series, part of an ongoing examination of water issues in the Badger state.

Where lead is likeliest

Like Minnesota, Wisconsin is one of nine states where supply lines to homes and businesses are most likely to contain lead, according to industry data. (The project does not actually address any but Wisconsin; the lead reporter, Silke Schmidt, told me the other eight are Minnesota, Illinois, New York, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri and Pennsylvania.)

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At one end of the response spectrum is Madison, the first major city in the nation to replace all of its lead service lines, both the public and private portions.  That effort, Schmidt wrote in a piece published yesterday,

[T]ook more than a decade beginning in 2001, and cost roughly $19.4 million. About 20 percent of the cost was borne by homeowners. The city covered half the cost of replacement, up to $1,000, for the 5,600 property owners who participated.

Robin Piper, the utility’s financial manager at the time, said the solution “made the most sense in the long run.” It made the city’s drinking water safe and did not pollute Madison’s lakes with orthophosphate, an anti-corrosive that was the other solution Madison could have chosen for preventing lead from leaching into water.

On the other hand, as the utility’s current general manager, Tom Heikkinen, told her, “It was quite a contentious thing. I’m glad I wasn’t here at the time.”

As of today, across the rest of the state,

At least 176,000 so-called lead service lines connect older Wisconsin homes to the iron water mains that deliver municipal water, according to an estimate by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Milwaukee alone, where 60 percent of the state’s known lead-poisoned children live, has 70,000 lead service lines.

Replacing all of Milwaukee’s would cost somewhere between $511 million and $756 million, according to the city’s water works. Nevertheless, the EPA advisory panel that included Lambrinidou is recommending that the Lead Copper Rule be rewritten to require the nation’s Milwaukees to follow Madison’s example, rather than taking a piecemeal approach in response to worsening test results.

Other notably large concentrations of lead lines cited by Wisconsin Watch are in Wausau, Wauwatosa and Racine, but nobody – not even the EPA – can list with confidence all the cities that have reason to worry.

Miguel Del Toral, a regulations manager at the EPA’s Chicago office, said that after five years of effort, he could only track down written documentation of lead pipes in 113 Wisconsin communities in 47 of the state’s 72 counties. The number of lead pipes outside of these communities is anybody’s guess.

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A nationwide EPA survey of 153 public water utilities in 1984 found that “30 percent of the respondents could not offer any estimate of the number of lead service lines remaining in their cities,” according to a 2008 report.


MinnPost event: On Monday, Feb. 22, MinnPost’s Earth Journal Circle will present its fourth annual event focusing on substantive discussion of critical issues in the environment. This year’s topic is “Land of 10,000 Lakes: Can We Achieve Water Sustainability?” The speaker is Deborah Swackhamer, former director of the University of Minnesota’s Water Resources Center, who will discuss issues threatening regional water quality and quantity. Earth Journal writer Ron Meador will moderate the Q&A session.