Despite Flint, many water systems not open about lead pipes

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By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service

LANSING – Flint’s lead-tainted water crisis has drawn international headlines, but some states and their water systems appear to be slow in learning the importance of keeping the public informed about similar risks.

Most of the country’s 100 largest water systems have failed to follow an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommendation to publicize where their lead service lines are, according to a new report by the U.S. General Accountability Office. The GAO is a nonpartisan investigatory arm of Congress.

The EPA made that recommendation to all states in 2016 after “the crisis in Flint brought increased attention to the country’s challenge of addressing lead in drinking water infrastructure,” GAO said in its report to congressional committees.

“Lead service lines present a significant risk of lead contamination in drinking water,” the report said.

Michigan has new regulations that require homeowners to be notified of nearby lead pipes by 2020.

Most lead in drinking water comes from corroded lead pipes, such as service lines that connect water mains to homes and businesses. A chemical interaction between water and the pipes corrodes the metal and allows lead to dissolve or lead particles to flake away into the water.

The report noted that no level of lead is safe in drinking water, with the highest risk to infants, children under 6 and pregnant women.

“In children it can delay growth, cause learning and behavioral problems and lower IQ, while in pregnant women it can reduce fetal growth and cause premature birth,” it said.

The EPA’s formal response to the GAO agreed with the report’s findings and conclusions. It said it “recently developed a website that showcases leading efforts by states, public water systems and communities to identify and replace lead service lines,” although none of the showcased projects are in Michigan.

In January 2016, the EPA wrote to Gov. Rick Snyder expressing the agency’s “concern with lack of transparency and accountability to the public in Flint,” the GAO said.

The next month, the EPA wrote to every state calling for more transparency. That letter encouraged states to work with their water systems to post information about lead pipes and maps online, but only six states created an online repository of lead maps or reports, the GAO said.

The GAO report “did not document the 12 systems out of the top 100 that posted this information,” said J. Alfredo Gómez, the director of natural resources and environment at the GAO.

Federal law doesn’t require water systems to post their materials or maps of lead service lines on state or water system websites.

However, Michigan now requires such public disclosure, according to Tiffany Brown, a public information officer at the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

The DEQ has implemented a new state-level requirement for systems to evaluate their inventory of lead service lines, verify the results and submit reports to the department, Brown said.

“When systems find a lead service line, they are required to notify the homeowner within 30 days. Systems will also be required to report on their website and in their consumer confidence report the total number of lead service lines in their system,” she said.

Their initial evaluations are due by Jan. 1, 2020, and no system has submitted its initial report yet.

Mary Brady-Emerson, the Michigan director of the advocacy group Clean Water Action, said the public transparency requirement of the new state rule is critical.

“We feel that update is a positive one,” Brady-Emerson said. “When fully implemented, the next key piece is always enforcement. If properly enforced, those updates will go a long way in ensuring increased transparency.”

She pointed to two public systems in the forefront of removing lead service lines. The municipal system in Lansing was the first in the state to take out all its lead service lines, and the Grand Rapids system “has announced a pretty aggressive timeline for full replacement, especially for a city of that size.”

In general, she said, municipal systems are more responsive than rural, cooperative and privately owned ones to demands for more transparency.

Nationally, there’s no accurate figure on the number of miles of drinking water mains in the country, the report said, but the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates the figure at 1 million miles.

The GAO said the number of lead service lines is also unknown because federal rules don’t generally require water systems to collect that data. The American Water Works Association estimates the total at 6.1 million.

EPA officials cited major reasons why it’s been difficult for water systems to compile inventories of lead service lines and publicize such information. They include concern about how that information may lower homeowner property values, insufficient staff and funding, difficulty in locating underground lines or getting access to private property, lack of records and water systems’ lack of a website to post that information.