Mil­lions of US homes have lead pipes

Amid many wa­ter crises, ex­perts call for re­plac­ing lines

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD - By David Porter and Mike Catal­ini

NE­WARK, N.J. — A drink­ing wa­ter cri­sis in New Jersey’s big­gest city is bring­ing new at­ten­tion to an old prob­lem: Mil­lions of homes across the U.S. get their wa­ter through pipes made of toxic lead, which can leach out and poi­son chil­dren if the wa­ter isn’t treated with the right mix of chem­i­cals.

Re­plac­ing those lead pipes is a daunt­ing task for cities and pub­lic wa­ter sys­tems be­cause of the ex­pense in­volved — and the dif­fi­culty of even find­ing out where all those pipes are. Only a hand­ful of states have put to­gether an in­ven­tory of the buried pipes, which con­nect homes to wa­ter mains and are of­ten on pri­vate prop­erty.

But af­ter drink­ing wa­ter emer­gen­cies in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.; Flint, Michi­gan; and now Ne­wark, some ex­perts are call­ing again for a re­think­ing of the the­ory that treat­ing the pipes with anti-cor­ro­sive agents is enough to keep the pub­lic out of dan­ger. In­stead, the lead lines should be re­placed, they say.

“It’s hard to come up with an ar­gu­ment against it,” Manny Teodoro, a pub­lic pol­icy re­searcher at Texas A&M, told New Jersey law­mak­ers this week. “Look, lead ser­vice line re­place­ment is ex­pen­sive, but it’s also re­mov­ing poi­son from the bod­ies of our­selves and our chil­dren. It’s dif­fi­cult to think of many things that are more im­por­tant.”

Done cor­rectly, chem­i­cal treat­ment should be enough to keep wa­ter in line with fed­eral reg­u­la­tions, ac­cord­ing to Peg Gal­los, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the As­so­ci­a­tion of En­vi­ron­men­tal Au­thor­i­ties, a group rep­re­sent­ing wa­ter util­i­ties. But in cases where the chem­i­cals fail, pipe re­place­ment be­comes an op­tion, she said.

Peo­ple in about 15,000 house­holds in Ne­wark were told to drink only bot­tled wa­ter last month af­ter the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency warned that the city’s ef­forts to con­trol lead con­tam­i­na­tion weren’t work­ing. Since then, res­i­dents in the largely poor, mostly black and His­panic city have had to line up in sum­mer heat for cases of free wa­ter dis­trib­uted by gov­ern­ment agen­cies.

The cri­sis has un­folded over sev­eral years, with city of­fi­cials in­sist­ing un­til re­cently that every­thing was un­der con­trol.

Nu­mer­ous city schools switched to bot­tled wa­ter be­cause of lead con­tam­i­na­tion in 2016. Tests in 2017 found that 1 in 10 Ne­wark homes had nearly twice as much lead in their wa­ter as al­lowed by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. The state De­part­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion is­sued a warn­ing to the city and pub­lic health ad­vo­cacy groups com­plained, but Mayor Ras Baraka de­fended the safety of the city’s wa­ter by send­ing res­i­dents a brochure con­demn­ing what he said were “out­ra­geously false” claims about lead con­tam­i­na­tion.

Later, con­sul­tants con­cluded that the city’s cor­ro­sion con­trol treat­ment for one of its main wa­ter sup­plies wasn’t work­ing. New chem­i­cals were in­tro­duced this spring, but it will be months be­fore their ef­fec­tive­ness can be ac­cu­rately gauged. The city handed out fil­ters be­gin­ning last fall, but then the EPA warned that they might not be work­ing.

Ne­wark’s wa­ter cri­sis shares some sim­i­lar­i­ties to the ones in Flint and Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

Flint’s lead lev­els spiked in 2014 af­ter the city switched its wa­ter source from Lake Huron, which was be­ing treated with the anti-cor­ro­sive or­thophos­phate, to the Flint River, which was not treated. Wash­ing­ton’s high lev­els be­tween 2000 and 2003 re­sulted from the city’s switch­ing an­ti­cor­ro­sion chem­i­cals from chlo­rine to chlo­ramine.

Ex­perts es­ti­mate there could be as many as 10 mil­lion lead ser­vice lines na­tion­wide but only five states re­quire in­ven­to­ries or maps of their lo­ca­tions, ac­cord­ing to the As­so­ci­a­tion of State Drink­ing Wa­ter Ad­min­is­tra­tors. A hand­ful of other states have set up vol­un­tary re­port­ing.

That leaves dozens of states with in­com­plete knowl­edge of where and how much of the toxic plumb­ing they have.

“The big­gest prob­lem we face is we don’t know where these lead pipes are,” said Marc Ed­wards, an en­vi­ron­men­tal en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor at Vir­ginia Tech Univer­sity. “In Flint, ul­ti­mately we had to dig up every sin­gle yard to find out what pipe was there be­cause the records were so bad.”

Ne­wark is now rac­ing to try and re­place all of its roughly 18,000 lead ser­vice lines, with the help of a county-backed, $120 mil­lion loan.

While cost is a fac­tor — in Ne­wark, it will cost about $10,000 per home to re­place the pipes — so is the dif­fuse na­ture of wa­ter util­i­ties. Teodoro es­ti­mated there are about 50,000 wa­ter sys­tems in the U.S., many of them small sys­tems. And in many cases the lo­ca­tion of pipes isn’t even writ­ten down, MaryAnna Holden, a com­mis­sioner on New Jersey’s Board of Pub­lic Util­i­ties, told law­mak­ers re­cently.

The most com­mon source of lead in wa­ter comes from pipes, faucets and fix­tures, rather than from wa­ter sources, ac­cord­ing to the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency. Congress banned the use of lead in wa­ter pipes in 1986, cit­ing lead’s harm­ful ef­fects on chil­dren’s ner­vous sys­tems. In 1991, fed­eral reg­u­la­tors be­gan re­quir­ing wa­ter sys­tems to mon­i­tor lead lev­els in drink­ing wa­ter and es­tab­lished a limit of 15 parts per bil­lion.

Since the Flint wa­ter cri­sis, some states have gone far­ther. Michi­gan last year low­ered its thresh­old to 12 parts per bil­lion. Ex­perts say no amount of lead is safe for chil­dren.

Kim Gaddy, 55, works as an en­vi­ron­men­tal jus­tice ad­vo­cate for Clean Wa­ter Ac­tion. She’s a renter in Ne­wark and had her lead ser­vice lines re­placed by the city shortly be­fore the two pos­i­tive lead tests led to the city hand­ing out bot­tled wa­ter.

“My mes­sage,” Gaddy said, would be: ‘Let’s pro­tect the health of (res­i­dents) and pro­vide them with safe, af­ford­able drink­ing wa­ter from the taps.’ ”

JULIO CORTEZ/AP

Des­mond Odom points to a hole in his ceil­ing made dur­ing work on re­plac­ing a lead pipe in Novem­ber in Ne­wark, N.J.

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