Aging water infrastructure could cost rate payers billions of dollars

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

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Lead in water is especially dangerous to infants and children.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

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 to identify how many lead pipes are found in their systems. The Springfield News-Sun 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.

» LIST: Does your community have lead pipes?

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.

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 pipes likely in several local water systems

Dozens of public water systems in the Miami Valley have identified lead pipes in their communities, including the City of Springfield.

Approximately 1,851 public water systems 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.

» LEAD IN WATER: Dayton Daily News wants to hear from you

Each public water system mapped their communities in vastly different ways, and some were able to pinpoint likely areas impacted by lead service lines while other utilities did not.

Clark County, which purchases water from the City of Springfield, said no lead service lines “have ever been located by its staff during normal maintenance activities or repair, however it is possible lead services exist.” The county submitted seven different maps to the EPA to cover its entire system area.

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.

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.”

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.

» INVESTIGATION: City working to identify lead pipes in water system

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.

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Dan Day, a water lab technician with the City of Dayton, takes a sample from one of 200 monitoring wells used to check on the quality of water in the Great Miami Buried Valley Aquifer and test for any contaminants on a regular basis. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF

Dan Day, a water lab technician with the City of Dayton, takes a sample from one of 200 monitoring wells used to check on the quality of water in the Great Miami Buried Valley Aquifer and test for any contaminants on a regular basis. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF

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Dan Day, a water lab technician with the City of Dayton, takes a sample from one of 200 monitoring wells used to check on the quality of water in the Great Miami Buried Valley Aquifer and test for any contaminants on a regular basis. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF

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.

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.

» RELATED: Partial pipe replacements may be tainting drinking water

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.

“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],” said Pat Turnbull, director for Montgomery County Environmental Services. “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.

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When a service line is replaced by the city, the ownership changes at the curb stop. The property owner is responsible for the service line past the curb stop on their property, which can cost up to $7,000 to replace.

When a service line is replaced by the city, the ownership changes at the curb stop. The property owner is responsible for the service line past the curb stop on their property, which can cost up to $7,000 to replace.

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When a service line is replaced by the city, the ownership changes at the curb stop. The property owner is responsible for the service line past the curb stop on their property, which can cost up to $7,000 to replace.

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.

Other cities and systems have 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.

» RELATED: Lead scare at Miami Valley traced to construction project

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.

» RELATED: Miami Valley Hospital hires Flint water crisis expert

“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?”

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.

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.

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This is a lead pipe. “If the scraped area is shiny and silver, your service line is lead. A magnet will not stick to a lead pipe,” according to the Cleveland Water Department. COURTESY OF CLEVELAND WATER

This is a lead pipe. “If the scraped area is shiny and silver, your service line is lead. A magnet will not stick to a lead pipe,” according to the Cleveland Water Department. COURTESY OF CLEVELAND WATER

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This is a lead pipe. “If the scraped area is shiny and silver, your service line is lead. A magnet will not stick to a lead pipe,” according to the Cleveland Water Department. COURTESY OF CLEVELAND WATER

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.

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

“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.”

CONTINUED COVERAGE

The Springfield News Sun has extensively covered water quality issues in the Miami Valley — work made possible by your subscription. 

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