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Replacing aging water pipes in communities across Southwest Ohio could cost rate payers billions of dollars in coming years, as utilities work to remove potentially dangerous lead components from local water systems.
A new state law is forcing public water utilities, like Dayton’s, to identify how many lead pipes are found in their systems. The Dayton Daily News reviewed hundreds of public records to analyze the water systems in nine local counties, and found that thousands of cities, counties, schools and businesses are connected to pipes that most likely contain lead.
Public water systems are working to identify possible lead in their water systems because exposure to the contaminant can cause neurological and gastrointestinal issues for those who ingest it, and it is especially harmful to young children and pregnant women.
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Extraordinary cases of lead contamination in recent years — like those in Flint, Mich. and Sebring, Ohio, where several houses tested for levels of lead and copper that dramatically exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules — have left water industry leaders questioning if aging water infrastructure is putting the public at risk.
Lead pipe problems
Dozens of public water systems in the Miami Valley have identified lead pipes in their communities, including the City of Dayton and Montgomery County.
The county, which developed an extensive map of its water infrastructure, found that about 75 percent of its system could potentially contain lead. Specifically, 60,786 homes, apartments or businesses served by the county could have lead services lines connected to their structures. Or if it doesn’t have lead pipes, the structures could also have lead solder within their own plumbing.
“We actually only know of a total of 37 properties in our system actively that are served with lead,” said Pat Turnbull, Montgomery County environmental services director. “However when you’re looking at those maps with the Ohio EPA, there’s a potential that as many as 60,000 of our 82,000 customers could have lead somewhere in their service system. Whether that’s in the service line from our main or whether that’s the internal plumbing in their house.”
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Approximately 1,851 public water systems in Ohio were required to submit maps indicating where lead service lines are likely to be located within the communities they serve. Service lines are small pipes that connect the main water line under a street to a home or business. The ownership of the service line changes at the curb-stop — half of it is owned by the utility and the other half is the responsibility of the property owner.
Each community mapped its public water system in vastly different ways, and some were able to pinpoint likely areas impacted by lead service lines while other utilities did not. Specific areas within Dayton that had a greater chance of having lead pipes include: Patterson Park in southeast Dayton and other neighborhoods like Fairview, Macfarlane, Grafton Hill and Southern Dayton View, according to Dayton’s map.
“The new maps are in line with the department’s goal to provide clean, safe and cost-effective drinking water,” Aaron Zonin, deputy director of Dayton’s water department, told this newspaper.
» INVESTIGATION: City working to identify lead pipes in water system
However, the city of Dayton was unable to generate a map comprehensive enough to estimate how many lead service lines are present in their system. There are only 134 verified lead service lines identified as of now, though the water department provides service for roughly 50,000 connections to homes and businesses in the city. Maps created in Cincinnati and Columbus identified several thousands of lead pipes.
The amount of lead components in the Dayton system is likely much higher.
“Most cities have a better estimate of the amount (of lead service lines) they have,” said Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director for the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. “Most can tell me how many they think they have and if it’s more.”
Turnbull said the majority of the county’s system — even the newer areas — had some possibility of containing lead. Montgomery County, which operates two public water systems, is responsible for more than 1,380 miles of water main, and will replace about four miles of pipe this year. Areas that could have lead components in the system includes parts of Clayton and Harrison Twp., Miami Twp., West Carrollton, and other neighborhoods across the county.
How utilities mapped systems
The push to identify lead in water systems across Ohio came after high lead levels were found in parts of the water system of the village of Sebring. Ohio House Bill 512, which went into effect in early September, is meant to strengthen the standards for state action.
The Ohio EPA has developed and published guidance and mailers to communicate the new requirements to public water systems operators. The agency has also given presentations and hosted webinars for operators and the laboratories performing the analyses, according to Ohio EPA spokeswoman Heidi Griesmer.
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The Ohio EPA said it will use the maps to ensure that the proper lead and copper sampling is done in areas of lead service lines. The systems are also required to identify and provide a description of the characteristics of buildings served by the system that may contain lead solder, fixtures or pipes.
Utilities verified map information by using historical permit records, local ordinances, distribution maintenance records. When cities and counties installed water infrastructure in the 1800s and 1900s, most did not keep record of the types of material used in their systems. That uncertainty has made it difficult for utilities to definitively state how many lead service lines are present — and where they’re located at.
Water mains in many cities and counties, including Dayton and Montgomery County, are typically made of ductile iron. Others are made of cast iron, high density polyethylene pipe, plastic and concrete.
Most utilities have estimated where lead services lines are at by looking at the age of infrastructure on streets and the age of the water main. Structures built prior to 1998, or that use plumbing material or solder manufactured before 1998, may have materials that contain more than 8 percent of lead and are at higher risk of contributing lead to the drinking water.
“Age is everything,” Turnbull said. “As a whole, our entire system has a lot of old sections to it. More than half of our water and sewer lines are over 50 years old.”
Materials manufactured after 1998 have less of a chance of contributing to lead in water. For Montgomery County, officials started developing strategies to deal with lead service lines well before the state law was passed.
The county has worked to collect data on its system for upwards of two decades, and recently put 400 to 500 hours of manpower to put together its mapping effort.
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“Our staff took probably a month or a month and a half to develop those maps we now have using that data (collected in the past two decades),” Turnbull said. “The staff really worked closely with Ohio EPA throughout the process. We wanted to make sure our mapping efforts met or really exceeded their expectations because we felt it was very important to be able to get this information out to the public.”
Every public water system, except for one, has submitted their maps to the EPA. The presence of lead in a water system doesn’t necessarily mean the public is at risk of consuming it. Dayton and Montgomery County have not had any water violations or lead level exceedances in 2017 water quality reports released.
“Due to the strict treatment mandated by regulators and internal goals pertaining to corrosion control, lead leaching into the water through city-owned mains is generally not a concern,” Zonin told this newspaper.
Utilities that serve 50,000 customers or more are required to implement corrosion control programs. Corrosion control works as a seal to keep lead from leaching into water supply. The push to replace lead pipes in U.S. water systems began decades ago with the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule. The law, which was revised in 2000 and 2007, applies to 68,000 public water systems nationwide.
Lawmakers and advocates are calling on the EPA to make more revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule, as cities across the country grapple with aging infrastructure. But utility owners say, though necessary, the replacements could be incredibly costly.
High probability of lead lines
This newspaper identified dozens of cities, counties, schools and businesses in Southwest Ohio that indicated there was a high probability of lead service lines in their systems. However, some areas that were developed in later years claim that they had no lead service lines in their systems.
Systems could submit a verification form to the EPA claiming to have no lead service lines. That does not account for the lead components that could be present on private property and in internal plumbing.
Several systems including Butler County, Clark County, Englewood, Fairborn, Fairfield, Greene County and Huber Heights claimed to have no known lead service lines. Several other counties and cities also stated they had no lead service lines present.
But most older cities and counties will have some lead component in their system, and many utilities that submitted their maps explained to the Ohio EPA that they have developed plans to replace lead lines and aging infrastructure.
Those efforts mean potentially spending big bucks for cities, counties — and rate payers. About 6 billion to 10 billion lead service lines need to be replaced across the U.S., and that is estimated to cost up to $80 billion, according to an EPA white paper.
Aging water infrastructure isn’t being replaced simply because of the potential of lead in the systems. As Montgomery County’s Turnbull explains it, over half of their system is more than 50 years old.
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“The lead services piece is only one component of what happens with aging infrastructure,” he said. “We look at the age and condition of the sewer and water main, we look at the number of main breaks or sewer backups, and even more important in some cases is — What is the risk to the public if the infrastructure fails?”
The total replacement value of the Montgomery County water and sewer system is about $3.1 billion. Over the next 20 years, an estimated $210 million needs to be spent on water infrastructure; $128 million needs to be spent on sewer infrastructure; and $250 million needs to be spent on above ground water and sewer infrastructure — entities like waste water plants, elevated water storage tanks and water pump stations.
The county will replace about four miles of pipe this year, and has projects planned in various areas of Kettering and Harrison Twp.
The city of Dayton, which would not disclose where its water projects will take place in 2017, began a project in 2013 to replace about 1 percent of its more than 800 miles of water and sewer infrastructure each year.
Since then, the city has replaced about 23 miles of water main at a cost of $29.4 million. Over the next 10 years, the city plans to invest between $160 million and $180 million in upgrades for its water and sewer systems.
According to utility owners, there is little state and federal funding available to cover the increasing costs of water infrastructure replacement. That means the projects are typically funded by water and sewer rate collections.
Replacements are costly too for homeowners
As most public water systems across the nation look to update their pipe systems, many are practicing partial service line replacements. That means the replacements don’t include the connecting pipes that run on private property — and are made of lead. That means new lines are running water into the existing lines that run into homes and businesses in the region, many of them older structures.
That practice can cause lead to leach into the water supply for homes. Utilities, like Montgomery County, often offer free water pitchers and lead testing kits for impacted homes after a project. In 2017, the county has provided 15 properties those pitchers.
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But the ownership of the pipe changes at the curbstop, and property owners become responsible for the lead service lines on their land. Replacing that line can cost private owners up to $7,000, an expense that homeowners often have to forego.
That’s if they’re aware their home is connected to a lead pipe. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, home buyers are often informed about defects or hazards about their prospective property, but not all states require disclosure about lead pipes on property. An EDF report found Ohio did not have a mandatory disclosure of lead pipes, but did have a mandatory disclosure of general environmental hazards for property buyers.
“If you don’t know where the lead pipe is, there’s no incentive to remove it,” said Lindsay McCormick, an EDF in-house project manager.
Local utilities say the opportunities for residents to receive funding for replacements is hit or miss. Some low-income households could qualify for funding, but there is no clear direction for homeowners to follow if they’re seeking financial assistance.
Other cities have implemented efforts to help property owners pay for replacements.
Last year, the Boston Water and Sewer Commission offered its customers $2,000 credit to replace lead lines, and also now offers a balance interest-free 49-month plan for customers. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources also allocated $14.5 million to disadvantaged municipalities for full lead service line replacement projects on private property.
“Some of that transparency is not out there just yet,” said Scott Biernat, director of regulatory affairs for the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies. “There’s definitely a movement heading in that direction.”
2017 REPLACEMENT PROJECTS IN MONTGOMERY COUNTY
• Rockhill, Cushing and Shroyer water main replacement in Kettering
• Woodlamd Hills Phase 2 in Harrison Twp.
• Arthur Plat Phase 2 in Harrison Twp.
• Bromfield water main replacement in Kettering
• 4 small water main replacements near bridge replacements