INVESTIGATION: City working to identify lead pipes in water system

Hundreds, if not thousands, of homes and businesses in Dayton are connected to water pipes made of lead, a toxic metal that could cause neurological, developmental and gastrointestinal issues in people — especially in children and pregnant women — who consume the poisonous substance.

Most home or business owners aren’t aware of the danger, but a new state law forces cities like Dayton to better communicate the possibility through a tightened water drinking quality reporting process.

The new Ohio law comes on the heels of a devastating lead contamination last year in Sebring, a small town between Youngstown and Canton. Several houses in the village tested for levels of lead and copper that dramatically exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules.

» INVESTIGATION: Partial pipe replacements may be tainting drinking water 

The city of Dayton is working to identify lead pipes in its expansive water system, but there are only 134 verified lead services lines identified as of now. City officials say the water department provides service for roughly 50,000 connections to homes and businesses in the city.

The amount of lead service lines, which deliver water to a structure from the public water main line, in the city is much higher, based on age of water main infrastructure and when buildings were constructed.

“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.”

Finding lead pipes in a water system is crucial to protecting the purity of water consumed by residents. Lead exposure has been linked to cognitive impairments and IQ loss in children and fetal death for pregnant women, among other problems for adults. There is no safe level of lead consumption, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

» RELATED: Ohio water systems to map where lead pipes are located

The city released two maps about lead pipe probability on its website in February, but took them down after more consideration and guidance from the Environmental Protection Agency. One map outlined the probability of lead service lines across the city and another indicated where verified lead service lines are located.

The Dayton Daily News obtained the original maps before they were taken down and found some city neighborhoods and the areas around them had a greater chance of have lead pipes that extend from the main water line to homes or other structures. Parts of town like Patterson Park in southeast Dayton and other neighborhoods like Fairview, Macfarlane, Grafton Hill and Southern Dayton View are all likely to have lead service line.

Aaron Zonin, deputy director of the water department, told this newspaper that the maps are being revised and will be put back online within the next few weeks. He said when the maps are released once again, the two will be combined to become more comprehensive and easier to understand for consumers.

Law spurs change across state 

Ohio House Bill 512 went into effect in early September after Gov. John Kasich signed the legislation. Under the law, water systems have to identify and map where the lead lines are at in their systems. The deadline to complete the mapping is Thursday, March 9, and city officials said they’re still fine-tuning the results.

Toni Bankston, spokeswoman for the city, said the water department started the mapping process in 2016.

The new law is meant to strengthen standards for state action. A statement from Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s office explained Ohio has had “first-hand experience with shortcomings of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.”

Sebring water system operators claim the increased lead and copper found in its system in 2016 came from smaller distribution lines and even old pipes in homes, but the former operator of the water system had files charged against him by the Ohio Attorney General for failure to provide timely notice to impacted residents.

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.

The Ohio EPA will issue violations for water systems that fail to complete the mapping before the March deadline, Griesmer said.

» RELATED: After lead scare, more flushing urged to remove sediment 

Khris Riddell, a resident of Dayton who lives near Miami Valley Hospital, said he didn’t know if his residence was serviced by a pipe that contained lead. He said he hoped the city would go door-to-door with information if there ever was a problem in his neighborhood. His 3-year-old son’s plastic wagon sat on the grass near Riddell’s porch.

“It’s not something I’ve thought much about,” he said. “I always hear we have pretty good water in Dayton. I’d have to keep on eye on it with him.”

Lead pipes likely to be found across city 

The real amount of lead pipes in Dayton’s water infrastructure is mostly likely much more expansive than the 134 lead service lines currently verified. Zonin said those verified lead service lines in the city’s water distribution system were identified as part of the requirements of the original Lead and Copper Rule, and are used as sample sites when the city tests water quality.

“The new maps are in line with the department’s goal to provide clean, safe and cost-effective drinking water,” Zonin said.

Dayton’s original heat map — which identifies areas that potentially have lead service lines — was constructed because of regulations under H.B. 512. In Ohio, structures built prior to 1998, or building that use plumbing material or solder manufactured before 1998, are more likely to have materials made up of 8 percent or more of lead.

» RELATED: Hospital blames construction for high lead levels in water supply 

Officials say it’s hard to pinpoint all the lead service lines in the system, and they are estimating that by when street main lines were installed.

It is common for older cities to still have lead pipes in their systems, and it doesn’t necessarily mean lead will flake off and enter the water supply. Federal guidelines require water systems serving more than 50,000 people — such as Dayton’s — to implement a corrosion control program through chemical treatment to the drinking water.

That corrosion control works as a seal to keep lead from leaching into water supply.

Most main lines in the region are made of ductile iron and sometimes caste iron or plastic, but are not typically lead-based pipes. Service lines, however, are often made of lead if they have not been replaced recent years. Standard procedure for most cities is to replace the old pipes with copper ones.

Pipe materials manufactured after 2014 are required to have less than 0.25 percent lead by weight, reducing the risk for contributing to lead in the drinking water, according to the city. Verified lead services line are scattered all over Dayton, but certain pockets of the city have a higher probability of having lead pipes.

“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 said.

Dayton began an ambitious project in 2013 to replace about 1 percent of its more than 800 miles of water and sewer infrastructure each year. Several main line and service line replacements are expected to kick off this year, however Zonin would not disclose where those projects will be located.

When the new maps are released, the city will also include information about where those projects will happen. Zonin said they are not specifically tied to areas that have a higher probability of having lead service lines. It’s based on the condition of the main lines, among other factors.

Now when a construction project starts, Zonin said the city will provide free filtered pitchers for homes impacted by the work. The pitchers ensure lead, if it does leach off, is filtered out of drinking water before it’s consumed.

What other Ohio cities have done

Dayton was unable to provide more specifics of where the lead service lines are located to this newspaper, but some other Ohio cities have narrowed down where they’re located at in a more specific way.

Cincinnati has provided an interactive online map, which allows users to type in a specific address. Each address can be clicked on and more specific information is shared about what type of material was used to construct the line.

Credit: Robert Calzada

Credit: Robert Calzada

Neltner of the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington D.C., told this newspaper that Cincinnati is a model for being transparent about water infrastructure.

“They’re admitting, which is a a good thing, that we don’t know where all these lines are,” Neltner said.

Some utilities are searching for more lead lines by going into homes when they replace the water meter, among other methods besides simply guessing by the date of the water main line or when houses in the area were built.

About 45 percent of the service pipes in the Cleveland Water system are likely to contain lead, according to an investigation by the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The website for Cleveland Water also has a search tool allowing users to find out more information about the city-owned connection that serves properties.

“We did utilize some of the ideas of the larger cities,” Zonin said.

Replacing lead service lines can be harmful

Though identifying lead service lines is a show of transparency, Zonin said, Dayton is also trying to clearly communicate the possibility of higher lead exposure in water when they do pipe replacements. Zonin said the city is working on new pamphlets to pass out to residents impacted by upcoming construction projects.

An estimated 10 million homes in the U.S. are connected to service lines that are at least partially made of lead, according to the U.S. EPA. An investigation by this newspaper found that many public water systems across the nation have engaged in the process of replacing only the city-owned portion of the service line. 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.

Critics say these partial replacements can increase lead levels in these structures, and they say public officials aren’t doing enough to alert people to the dangers of exposure.

“(Water utilities) offer to the consumer: ‘You can replace your part of the lead pipe,’ ” said Marc Edwards, the expert who discovered the Flint, Mich. water crisis. “But they never tell the consumer that if they don’t do that, they might be endangering the health of their family. If they were honest about the health risk, that would raise questions about the whole program.”

Neltner said Ohio as a state has showed leadership on lead exposure in water, which showed in the legislature passed that required these new maps. As larger cities work to address infrastructure issues, he said it’s important that mid-sized and small cities don’t fall through the cracks.

“Some utilities, they think they’re only responsible for the lead pipe on public property,” he said. “But from a homeowner’s perspective, do they really think the pipe is theirs? No. It’s a complicated issue of who actually owns it.”

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