The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency released new guidance and regulations this week for how Ohio public water systems must alert residents and businesses when the water systems are replacing water lines that contain lead.
New regulations require every public water system in Ohio to notify residents or business owners 45 days before making repairs to water lines that contain lead. Water systems are also now required to provide filters to residents for up to three months after work is complete, the new regulations state.
A document released this week also states there is some evidence that when lead service lines are disturbed during water line work, lead may be released into the drinking water — “potentially reaching the consumer’s tap.” Lead is a toxic metal that could cause neurological, developmental and gastrointestinal issues in people — especially in children and pregnant women — who consume the poisonous substance.
» UNMATCHED COVERAGE: Partial pipe replacements may be tainting drinking water
In 2016, high levels of lead contaminated part of Miami Valley Hospital’s water supply on its Dayton campus for a short amount of time. Hospital officials concluded from their own investigation that a short-term road construction project on Warren and Brown streets near the hospital likely disturbed the sediment within the water lines.
A major feed line for water to the hospital was part of the construction work on Warren and Brown streets and once the hospital switched from this source there were no further issues with lead, Miami Valley officials said.
A spokesman for Premier Health, which owns Miami Valley Hospital, told the Dayton Daily News the city and the hospital communicate regularly about infrastructure improvements, and the hospital welcomes “any notifications required by the state of Ohio concerning the replacement of lead service lines that could affect public water supplies used by our hospitals.”
According to the U.S. EPA, the total number of lead service lines is unknown, but the federal agency estimates that as many as 10 million homes are connected to service lines that are at least partially made of lead.
Federal and state environmental agencies have slowly been rolling out new regulations and guidelines on water infrastructure best practices for more than two years.
Public water systems regularly replace service lines. When utility-owned service lines under the streets are replaced the lines that property owners use to bring water into their buildings often are not. Under federal law, cities and municipalities are required to replace the utility-owned part of the service lines. Property owners are responsible for the lines on their property.
Aaron Zonin, deputy director of Dayton’s water department, said the department didn’t notify property owners if they found lead lines on their property prior to this rule. Now, the department is required to alert owners — but the cost to make the actual replacement still falls on the property owners.
“There are no local incentives for people to replace (their part of the service lines) that I’m aware of,” he said. “This rule came really fast.”
Some public water system operators have raised concerns about the legality of replacing pipes on public property, while weighing the hefty costs of full service line replacements. Beth Messer, the assistant chief for the Ohio EPA division of drinking and ground waters, said the agency has loan and funding available for public water systems to take advantage of that would recoup the costs of full service line replacements.
“We definitely provide incentives,” she said.
Not many utilities have taken advantage of the funding currently. The City of Cincinnati recently used incentives, and the city has now been identified as a model for robust and aggressive water infrastructure replacement, she said.
Some researchers say lead levels in the water can spike for a little while after a partial service line replacement. The increase can range from days to months and potentially longer. While the Ohio EPA is still guiding public water systems on partial service line replacements, the guidance document clearly outlines the benefits of a full-service line replacement.
The National Drinking Water Advisory Council has recommended “proactive” full lead service line replacements, but the EPA has questioned the legal ramifications of mandating pipe replacements on private property. Several cities, however, have implemented full service line replacements, including Lansing, Mich., and Madison, Wis.
“(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.”
It can cost property owners up to $9,000 to replace their side of the service lines in some cases.
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. Over the next 10 years, the city plans to invest between $160 million and $180 million in upgrades for its water and sewer systems.
Zonin said since 2013 the city has replaced about 33 miles of water main at a cost of $41 million, as of the end of 2017.
“Years ago, we began an aggressive program to replace public water infrastructure. We were thinking ahead; we were aggressive,” Zonin said. “We have everything in place. I think we’re doing a really good job. We feel proud.”