In order to replace the roughly 10 million lead service lines nationwide, states must first find them. We verified that not all states maintain an inventory.
WASHINGTON — On a freezing February morning, Jason Fuentes found himself in a hole.
It was a little after 10 a.m. and his New York Giants sweatshirt was already covered in a layer of dirt and mud. This hole sat in the middle of a lawn on Lawrence Street, NE in the neighborhood. At his feet, a tool called a “bullet”, similar to a jackhammer, roared as he opened a tunnel from this hole to another on the sidewalk.
This was all done to make way for a brand new copper pipe, which will replace a potentially dangerous lead pipe.
Later they will cut the asphalt down to the concrete and connect the new pipe to the main water line.
“Parálo! Parálo!” he shouted, in Spanish for “stop it”.
The sound of the bullet stopped. Fuentes was one of a dozen crew members working to replace that lead pipe. It is a laborious process that will take half a day to complete.
“That’s what I do every day,” he says as he shovels. “I’ve been doing it for 12 years.”
This process has been replicated thousands of times across the country. Crews wearing yellow safety vests have been working for decades to tackle an epidemic of lead pipes, sometimes in “service lines”, which connect the main water line to homes. Lead can cause medical problems if it gets into water.
APE estimates as many as 10 million lead pipes still remain, buried underground in communities large and small. But before any work can be done, utilities need to know where the lead pipes are.
Do DC, Maryland and Virginia know where their lead pipes are?
Our Verify researchers posed this question to water quality officials in all three jurisdictions. We have found that DC has the best control over the amount and location of lead pipes.
“We have a lot of historical documentation which has a good indication if there is [a] lead pipe” Schmelling, a 17-year DC Water veteran, said. “We also have excavation logs – but basically we have to come to the block and we dig down to the service line in the yard space and then we can see the pipe. And that’s how we determine if they have [a] lead pipe.”
DC Water has a block-by-block map showing where they think the lead pipes are. Although the map is robust, it is not complete: there are several addresses marked with a white dot, representing “no information”.
Click on here to access DC Water’s lead pipe map.
According to Schmelling, there are approximately 30,000 lead pipes in the district, including 10,000 on the public side and 20,000 on the private side. She said the cost to replace just one was between $10,000 and $15,000.
You can see how the cost easily adds up: paying a crew, digging up the street, sidewalk and yard, then backfilling the torn concrete and asphalt to reach the main water pipe.
“On top of that is all of the project management and making sure we meet all of the DDOT (Department of Transportation) permit requirements and all of our signage, and making sure everyone is safe on the construction site, and pedestrians and cars are safe,” Schmelling said.
DC Water is well aware of the problems lead pipes can cause.
In the early 2000s, DC Water changed the chemicals used to treat the water, causing the city’s lead pipes to corrode.
“No one realized at the time that changing our sanitizer would actually cause the lead to leach into the water,” Schmelling said.
The more water services, the more difficult it is to create an accurate inventory
Meanwhile, finding statewide numbers in Virginia and Maryland isn’t as easy.
“The reason we don’t know how many main service lines there are is because they haven’t been followed,” said Dwayne Roadcap, director of the Office of Drinking Water at the Virginia Department of Health, said.
Unlike DC where there is one major water supplier, Virginia has 2,830 water utilities, according to Roadcap. He said utilities are not required to track lead pipes or report their location to the state.
“I think some utilities have better information than others,” Virginia’s top tap water official said.
Roadcap said testing remains important because the lead is out there.
“Even though we know we have lead service lines, we also know that drinking water is safe because we do a good job of monitoring water quality and making sure lead does not come out. don’t escape the pipe”, he said.
You might be wondering, “Doesn’t the federal government require utilities to follow lead pipes?” »
Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the law that governs tap quality, two main parts apply to lead.
The first part involves the use of lead pipes.
In 1986, the SFWA banned water systems from installing lead pipes and lead-containing solder, or using it for repairs.
The second part concerns lead screening: this is called The rule of lead and copper.
In 1991, the EPA created a limit – what they call an “action level” – on how much lead could be present in drinking water before corrective action was needed. This limit is 15 parts per billion.
The lead and copper rule requires utilities to sample tap water in their supply area, and if more than 10% of the samples collected exceed 15 parts per billion, utilities do things like corrosion, customer contact and if levels are high enough, lead service line replacements.
These samples should be taken from sources with known or suspected lead pipes.
“The systems had to do an inventory of materials to identify these sampling locations. Those were not complete,” a senior EPA official said. “There’s also the situation where if a system went past the action level before, it had to have an inventory because it was triggered in a primary service line override requirement…and it had to override a certain percentage. “
Until December 2021, there was no federal requirement for states to compile an inventory of lead service lines owned by utility companies. More on that later.
Lead is more common in homes built in the early 1900s
While Roadcap said there was no statewide total, it said older places like Richmond, Newport News and Alexandria are known places to find lead.
Our Verify researchers contacted Virginia American Water Company (VAWC), the only water supplier in Alexandria.
In 2018, there were 2,641 utility-owned service lines classified as “potentially lead, unknown or suspected lead” in the city, according to a VAWC spokesperson.
Since then, she said the utility has reduced lead lines by 25% and that statewide about 3% of VAWC’s utility lines contain lead.
The company has provided a heat map of where it thinks the lead pipes may be.
Similar to Virginia, Maryland also does not keep records of lead pipes used for drinking water.
“We don’t know how many lead pipes there are. We don’t know how many lead appliances there are. This is a priority for us,” said Ben Grumbles, environment secretary.
Maryland has about 470 community water systems, and although Grumbles said they did a lead pipe inventory five years ago, they got only sporadic responses.
They also do regular tests in schools.
As of Feb. 7, the state had received 70,640 water samples collected from schools. He found this lead levels exceeded 20 parts per billion, which exceeds the EPA limit, in more than two percent of drinking water outlets.
“It’s a manageable problem that we can help solve,” Grumbles said. “So it wasn’t – it’s not an overwhelming crisis.”
Lead pipe inventories are now required under a December 2021 amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act
So at this time DC, Maryland and Virginia don’t know where all the lead pipes are.
That’s because the EPA has focused more on lead testing than pipe replacement. But that will soon change.
under a new amendment under the Safe Drinking Water Act, all states must submit a full inventory to the EPA by October 2024, which means states and utilities must work to compile all of this data now.
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