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How an EPA project backfired, endangering drinking water with lead

By Sheila Kaplan and Corbin Hiar
Investigative Reporting Workshop, American University

Millions of Americans may be drinking water that is contaminated with dangerous doses of lead. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) knows it; state governments know it; local utilities know it. The only people who usually don’t know it are those who are actually drinking the toxic water.

The problem stems from a common practice in which water utilities replace sections of deteriorating lead service lines rather than the entire lines, commonly known as partial pipe replacements. It is a course of action that can do more harm than good.

“It’s scary and the magnitude of this problem is huge,” said Dr. Jeffrey K. Griffiths, a Tufts University professor of medicine and public health, who recently chaired an expert panel advising the EPA on the problem.  “I didn’t realize how extensive the lead exposure still remained. … EPA is really deeply concerned about this …. This was not something they expected.”

Since the 1970s, lead has emerged as the most dangerous neurotoxin known to man, potentially damaging the developing brain and nervous system, causing life-long learning disabilities and other serious problems. It has been taken out of gasoline, removed from paint and banned from children’s toys. Yet practices developed to keep lead out of water, under an EPA rule, have backfired and can actually increase the hazard, a fact that led the agency to create Griffith’s group to study the latest science on the issue.

The problem stems from the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule, a regulation designed to protect Americans from the nation’s network of aging
lead water service lines, which connect water mains to customers’ taps. Most of these lead service lines were installed before the devastating effects of this heavy metal were fully accepted. Seeking to reduce the amount of this poisonous metal leaching into drinking water from old lead pipes, the regulation required utilities to test water from local homes for lead. If 10 percent of the samples exceeded 15 parts per billion, the utility was then ordered to try to reduce the lead contamination through chemical corrosion control techniques. If that failed, water utilities had to replace 7 percent of their lead service lines each year, or until follow-up samples showed the lead levels were reduced.

But after a review of recent studies and interviews with dozens of scientists as well as state and federal water officials, the Investigative Reporting Workshop found that the regulation has become a case study in unintended consequences.

“EPA tried to do something good and was thwarted. We should recognize that,” said Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a preeminent lead researcher and professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, who served with Griffiths on the EPA Science Advisory Board’s Drinking Water Committee.

A plan derails
The regulation began to derail as early as 1993, when the American Water Works Association (AWWA), which represents more than 4,000
public and privately-owned water systems, sued EPA. The trade group argued that EPA had adopted the Lead and Copper Rule without proper notice about how it planned to define “control” of — responsibility for — the service lines. The group also claimed that utilities did not have authority to replace the sections of lines on private property, and that ordering them to do so exceeded EPA’s mandate.

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A federal appeals court ruled that EPA had, in fact, not provided enough notice for public comment on the issue of control; but the court did not rule on the question of EPA’s authority to require the utilities to replace the portion of the pipes on private property. Following the decision — that the EPA made a procedural error — and after years of industry lobbying, the agency amended its rule in 2000 to permit the utilities to perform so-called “partial pipe replacements,” from the water main to the private property line. In the vast majority of cases, homeowners would be responsible for paying to finish the job.

Few homeowners have done so, to their detriment. As Griffith’s panel wrote in a little-noticed report last year, “[B]ased on the current scientific data, PLSLRs [partial lead service line replacements] have not been shown to reliably reduce drinking water lead levels in the short term, ranging from days to months, and potentially even longer. Additionally, PLSLR is frequently associated with short-term elevated drinking water lead levels for some period of time after replacement, suggesting the potential for harm, rather than benefit, during that time period.” The panel found “the available information is broadly suggestive that PLSLR may pose a risk to the population

How tap water flows
When water leaves a treatment plant, it is usually lead-free.  From the plant, water flows into large pipes, called mains, which are usually made of cast-iron or concrete and run under streets. From the main, water flows through a smaller pipe called a service line, which carries it to the customer’s tap. That service line is where contamination can begin. Lead service lines are found in many states, but are especially common in older neighborhoods in the Midwest and Northeast.  Most water systems stopped installing them in the first half of the last century. And there is generally less lead in water now than in years past.

But, if the service line is made of lead, as are between 3.3 and 6.4 million, according to a recent report from the Robert Wood Johnson
Foundation, fragments of corroded lead can chip off and be swept into tap water. Additional lead can also get in as the water runs across lead-soldered joints or comes into contact with brass or bronze fixtures. Until recently, such hardware was allowed to be advertised as “lead-free,” even if it contained up to 8 percent lead. A federal law reducing the acceptable amount of lead in these plumbing fixtures to .25 percent will take effect in 2014, although Vermont and California have already adopted such rules.

Partial pipe replacements can physically shake loose lead fragments that have built up and laid dormant inside the pipe, pushing them into the homeowners’ water, and spiking the lead levels, even where they previously were not high. In addition, the type of partial replacement that joins old lead pipes to new copper ones, using brass fittings, “spurs galvanic corrosion that can dramatically increase the amount of lead released into drinking water supplies,” according to research from Washington University.  Similar findings have been
published by researchers at the Virginia Tech and elsewhere.

So why are these partial pipe replacements still commonplace? The reason is twofold: Replacing the customer’s portion of the pipe, from the property line or meter to the home, is expensive — averaging $2,300 but going as high as $7,000 or more.

And the Investigative Reporting Workshop found another reason: Notification about the health risk of partial pipe replacement is inconsistent around the country. Residents are not always told that partial pipe replacements have been shown to raise the risk of lead poisoning. It is a fact that might make the cost — and hassle of tearing up one’s lawn and patio or cutting down trees — seem worth it.

Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, ran an investigation into lead-in-water issues last Congress, and has more recently raised concerns about partial lead pipe replacements.

In a letter to EPA last September, Miller wrote, “Under the LCR [Lead and Copper Rule] homeowners are warned in general about the dangers of lead, particularly to young children, babies, pregnant women and their fetuses.” But, he wrote, “they are not notified about the grave impact that ‘partial’ lead line replacements may have and the significant unintended public health risks this partial replacement may pose to their families. … These PLSLRs have cost local water systems tens of millions of dollars and in many cases have elevated, not decreased water lead levels for extended periods of time in cities around the country.”

Miller, citing information from EPA, said at least 38,000 mandatory partial replacements have been completed or are planned in water
systems that serve 1.4 million people — although he said this figure is likely underestimated because of what he called poor reporting by utilities and state agencies and weak tracking by EPA.

One EPA water specialist, who asked not to be named, said there are 100 to 1,000 times more voluntary pipe replacements, which occur
during routine pipe maintenance or emergency repairs on water mains or broken pipes, than there are mandatory ones.

The rule requires water systems that are performing partial pipe replacements under EPA order to inform customers of the risks that their
lead levels might temporarily increase. But the agency provides only “guidance” as to what utilities should say. Adherence to that requirement and interpretations of this suggested language vary widely.

An Investigative Reporting Workshop survey of notifications sent out to customers in the 13 water systems identified by EPA as recently
having done mandatory partial pipe replacements, or still working on them, found that nearly a third of them didn't mention the potential for lead levels to spike after the procedure.

The level of warning the 13 water companies made dropped even further when the same utilities were conducting routine voluntary replacements during roadwork or to fix leaks — essentially the same procedure, but not  ordered under the law. Only around half of the utilities alert residents to the potential for lead levels to spike after a voluntary partial pipe replacement.

Part of the reason these utilities don't give the same warnings when doing basically the same procedure is that they're not required to. EPA offers no guidance for these far more common voluntary partial lead service line replacements done by utilities across the country.

Likely as a result, the vast majority of other U.S. cities that are not under EPA orders to replace their remnant lead pipe systems rarely
give any warnings to their customers about lead levels spiking after they do voluntary partial service line replacements.

The Investigative Reporting Workshop interviewed representatives at the largest utilities in the country by customer base about whether or not they notified customers about the potential for lead spikes after repair work had been done on the public portion of the pipe.  The top five water utilities with lead service lines said that they did not notify customers of the potential health risks after repairs or maintenance. Those utilities are New York City Water Supply System, City of Chicago Department of Water Management, Miami-Dade Water and Wastewater Services, Philadelphia Water Department, and City of Phoenix Water Services Department.  A Phoenix water utility
representative, however, said that lead pipes in their system are extremely rare. 

The Workshop also surveyed other water utilities with lead pipes around the country, many of which do not notify customers about the
potential for harm with the partial pipe replacement.  Denver Water was the only utility we spoke with that indicated they did full pipe replacements of all lead pipes through the customer property to avoid dangerous lead spikes. Madison, Wis., and Washington D.C. warn residents about the potential for lead levels to spike after work on the public portion of their pipes.

In Cincinnati, residents are warned when partial pipe replacements are done, but  not when water mains are being replaced – which also can cause spikes.   After the Workshop raised the issue, Jeff Swertfeger, assistant superintendent of Greater Cincinnati Water Works, said he did not realize that they did not provide this information and that they planned to change their notification to warn of the threat of raised lead levels. Other major cities that said they do not inform residents that lead in their drinking water may reach dangerous levels after a partial pipe replacement are Columbus, Ohio; Boston; St. Louis; Newark, N.J.; Louisville, Ky; New Orleans, and Pittsburgh, Pa.

Although the local water utility in Providence, R.I., stopped doing mandatory partial pipe replacements after the neighborhood of Mount Hope protested, the utility continues to do voluntary replacements for maintenance purposes and does not notify customers about the health risks. 

“If a child drinks from the bathroom tap or water tap,” it can be dangerous, Lanphear said. “Lead in water is usually very bio-available and this is a direct ingestion.” Lanphear estimates that children get about 20 percent of their lead exposure from water. For newborns on baby formula, he says, the amount is closer to 40 to 60 percent.

That news does not seem to have reached all the nation’s water companies. In Louisville, Ky., for example, the Louisville Water Company
has been conducting voluntary partial pipe replacements for decades. The utility plans to finish replacing its portion of all lead service lines by 2020 — about 19,700 services in all, according to a “Lead Information Sheet” published on its website.

That same information sheet gives customers no indication of the potential threat posed by what the company calls its “aggressive initiatives.” Tests conducted throughout the system “all confirm that lead in drinking water does NOT pose a health threat to our customers,” the handout states. Despite that, in 2011, about 10 percent of the Louisville samples exceeded EPA’s action level.

In Pittsburgh, Stanley States, director of water quality and production for the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, said the utility
frequently does partial replacements when working on the city’s pipes, but does not disclose the risks residents run if they don’t pay to replace their segment other lead service lines. “We’re waiting for better guidance from EPA on what to do about that,” States said. “We're not going to act on our own and go off half-cocked.”

Action level not protective of public health
Jeffrey Kempic, an environmental engineer with EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water in Washington, D.C., noted in a presentation to EPA’s advisory panel that the action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb) is not health-based, but was chosen for the practical reasons of feasibility and economics.

Advisory panel chairman Griffiths said, “That doesn’t mean if you are at 14.9 that’s not bad for you.”  In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) changed its definition of lead poisoning in response to a CDC advisory panel report declaring that there is no safe level of exposure to lead. The CDC lowered the threshold for intervention in children from 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood to five.

EPA water specialist Michael Schock said there is reason for concern. “The research up to this point … is that any kind of disturbance of an
in-place line can cause elevated lead levels,” said Schock. “[Lead] may persist from days to years. So long as the lead pipes are in there, or any part of the lead pipe, there is a potential for a lead level that used to be low, to be considerably higher. And since there’s no safe level for lead, the remnant pipe remains a continued exposure source.”

Schock also worried about lead exposure for children and complained to the Workshop in a telephone interview from Cincinnati, Ohio, with
an EPA public relations representative on the line, that there is no requirement for anyone to track children who have been exposed to lead in water from so-called voluntary replacements.

Indeed, there are no testing or reporting requirements when partial pipe replacements are conducted as a matter of routine maintenance.

Miguel Del Toral, an EPA water specialist in Chicago, expressed frustration with the lack of information and the prevalence of partial pipe replacements, both required and voluntary. “How many partials have been done? We don’t even know how many lead service lines there are out there. None of that is reportable,” Del Toral said. “In some cases they say they notify the residents, but all they do is notify them that their water is going to be cut off while they replace the lines. There is not any kind of educational material to inform them that their lead levels will go up.”

Problems date back decades
Heath-risks from partial pipe replacements should not have been a surprise. As far back as 1988, when the Lead and Copper Rule was in
discussion, Schock’s division warned that partial pipe replacements were likely to expose more people to dangerous levels of lead. At the time, the alternatives were thought to be too burdensome to the utilities. Later, in 1997, he wrote a memo to his colleagues noting,  “[T]he bottom line is that EPA is promulgating a policy that KNOWINGLY INCREASES LEAD LEVELS for an UNKNOWN DURATION,” he wrote to EPA environmental engineer Peter Lassovszky. Schock’s counsel was not followed.

Although public health officials have been concerned about the impact of partial pipe replacements for years, Griffith’s advisory committee was convened by EPA only after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention completed a study in 2010 noting that children living in houses in Washington, D.C., where partial pipe replacements were carried out were three times as likely to have elevated levels of lead in their blood as children living in houses in which the old lead service lines remained undisturbed, or were not made of lead. The advisory committee reviewed the current science and said past research, which showed that partial pipe replacements either did not cause spikes or caused only brief ones, studied too small a sample size to be valid.

“There has been a lot of research over the years that has called [partial pipe replacements] into question,” said Paul Niman, environmental engineer for the state of Massachusetts. “It’s always been suspected, this was more my understanding, that partial lead service line replacements would lead to short-term elevated lead levels, but then they would settle down.”

When the advisory committee looked into it, Niman said, “They found, ‘Guess what? It doesn’t really settle down and might make things

Massachusetts has eight water systems conducting mandatory partial pipe replacements, mostly in the Boston suburbs. Niman has been waiting for guidance from EPA.

“We’d like to see EPA take a position to say, ‘Let’s discontinue doing the partial lead pipe replacements,” Niman said. “We want them to focus on full lead pipe replacements …We’ve asked EPA to create some type of funding so that homeowners who couldn’t afford to have it done could get some low interest or no-interest loan to assist them, but I don’t know [that] we’re going to see that.”

Some cities, such as Madison, Wis., have ordinances requiring homeowners to pay for their part of the new pipes, and also offering
financial help, as does Boston, but this is rare.

Missing the danger
Marc Edwards, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech and an expert in home plumbing and drinking water systems, was instrumental in resolving a 2004 lead-in-water contamination scandal in Washington, D.C. Hundreds of homes there had tested at more than 300 ppb, and, in a few cases, the utility measured lead above 24,000 ppb, Edwards said in an email. The city’s lead problem was ultimately traced in part to the EPA-directed use of chloramines, a disinfectant, which made lead more likely to leach into the water, as well as the partial pipe replacements, which were stopped in 2008. Edwards and a U.S. congressional investigation led by Miller
called CDC complicit in downplaying the health risks to residents when the CDC wrote a controversial report in 2004 claiming that there was no evidence of childhood lead poisoning from the elevated lead levels in water.

Edwards, who won a 2007 MacArthur genius award in part for his work to discover and expose problems with lead contamination, and EPA’s Schock accused some water utilities of “gaming the system” in various ways, including testing homes in newer neighborhoods where pipes have less likelihood of becoming corroded and failing to test enough houses. The regulation itself gives utilities this loophole, requiring the testing of only up to 100 homes, no matter the size of the district. “It all comes down to which houses you pick,” Edwards said. “If you don’t pick the worst houses, you don’t find the problem.”

Schock said, “Gaming is trying to skew a sampling program to not uncover potentially risky lead or copper sites.” He didn’t point to specific examples, but he told the Workshop that he, too, believes it goes on.

One example Edwards points to is Chicago, where the city continued to install lead pipes until 1986, when lead was banned in new plumbing and plumbing repairs.  Edwards said that in 20 years of testing Chicago never produced samples exceeding the 5 parts per billion limit.  From March 2011 through October 2011, however, EPA did its own tests using a few different sampling protocols, and found lead levels as high as 36.7 ppb.

In these studies, EPA conducted sequential sampling, which consists of taking multiple samples at each site, one after other, to assess the level of corrosion throughout the plumbing network. It was in these sequential samples that EPA found the high results. Currently, sequential sampling results are not allowed to be used for compliance monitoring under the current Lead and Copper Rule.

EPA’s Del Toral said the purpose of the study was to evaluate the effectiveness of the current sampling protocol in capturing the level of lead corrosion that is occurring. All public water systems, including Chicago, are required to use the current sampling protocol. All sampling was completed as of October 2011 and EPA is in the process of writing up the study findings, an effort that may lead to changes in the sampling methods required under the law.

Water utilities develop a new tactic
For the past year, EPA has been holding public meetings to discuss partial pipe replacements as the agency considers revamping the Lead
and Copper Rule. Science Advisory Board committee members, EPA staffers and utility officials say that some of the changes under consideration are: a possible moratorium on partial pipe replacements; new ways to help customers pay to replace their section of the pipe; increased public warnings of the risks of partial pipe replacements, especially for those done on a voluntary basis; possible changes in test methods and house selection; and conducting definitive studies on the health risks of partial pipe replacements.

But faced with the prospect of new EPA rules, and increasing evidence that the partial pipe replacements pose a hazard, water utilities have developed a new tactic: “gifting” the lead service lines to property owners. According to a survey of 90 utilities of varying sizes and from different regions, published in a 2008 report by the industry-funded AWWA Research Foundation and EPA, “77 percent of utilities
responding claimed ownership of the service line from the main to the curb stop [property line]….” Yet shortly before the Griffith’s advisory committee report was released three years later, the water association conducted another survey, which found that of its 805 respondents, 69 percent said they did not own any of the lead service line.

Niman said, “We have had that occur in Massachusetts.’’ Some communities around the nation, Niman said, “have passed bylaws saying this city or town is no longer responsible for the pipe. It’s now the responsibility of the homeowner.”

In Washington, D.C., the Water and Sewer Authority, now called DC Water, has made great strides in accountability under new leadership,
scientist Edwards and his research partner, Yanna Lambrinidou, a local activist, said. But they have one concern: DC Water can escape responsibility, they said, for the remaining thousands of lead pipes by having “gifted” them to homeowners.

Indeed, DC Water recently changed its wording about ownership on its website. Until March, the utility’s website noted, “To encourage pipe replacement on private property, DC WASA is offering homeowners the chance to replace their lead service pipe at the same time that contractors replace the lead pipe on public property.”

The website now reads: “During water main replacement projects, the portion of the water service pipes in public space are replaced
in order to connect each household to the new water main. This includes the replacement of any existing lead pipes in the public space. The water service pipe connects the water main to your household plumbing and is owned by the property owner. … However under certain conditions, DC Water is authorized to repair, maintain or renew the portion of the service pipe in public space.”

Asked about the change, DC Water’s principle counsel, Gregory Hope, said, “Questions were raised as to who is responsible for doing what in public space, whether or not the property owner is responsible. Are they responsible for doing everything, if they do their own half?”

Hope declined to say who raised the questions. He said he researched the history of the relevant codes, and found that an 1896 statute
passed by Congress gave property ownership of the entire line, from the water main to the tap, to the property owner. The District of Columbia enacted revisions in 1977, he said, to “maintain, renew and replace the portion in public space.” Hope said the D.C. City Council’s policy is that the utility will still pay to replace the public portion of the service line, but that his review of the law says the D.C. code, “did not transfer ownership.” But as recently as 2004, the DC water utility published a news release saying “… in the District, as in most U.S. cities, homeowners own the portion of the service line that runs from the edge of their property line to their house…”

Lambrinidou, president of Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives, said that DC Water ultimately was shifting liability for the lead pipes to the
homeowners. “Utilities cannot pass on the burden of leaded pipes to consumers and politicians,” she said. “This reflects a more systemic trend among water utilities, that is that their priority is to get rid of their responsibility for lead in water.”

The researchers have raised this issue with EPA. “Is each homeowner in the U.S. ‘gifted’ a lead line going to sue them to say, ‘I don’t
own it?’” Edwards asked. “It’s crazy. … If the approach is successful, they’ve just absolved themselves of their major responsibilities under the Lead and Copper Rule.” An EPA staffer, who asked not to be named, said, “We know about it, but we have no statutory authority to do anything about it.”

Steven Via, regulatory engineer at water association said, “We ought to get the lead out to the extent that we can. … Getting lead out is
a shared responsibility, so that the water system can take out the lead that they are responsible for, and the homeowner should take responsibility for what they own.”

Via acknowledges that when utilities replace water mains, especially in an emergency, they may not advise residents of the risks. “We’ve
been working on information to get out to customers so that they fully appreciate the nature of lead and that they take steps that are appropriate if they are concerned about it,” he said.

An EPA spokeswoman said the agency plans to publish its proposed revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule by January 2013. The agency has been working on revisions since 2007.

Hilary Niles and Julie Stein contributed to this report.