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Some cities know where lead water service lines are, others have “very rough to no idea”

Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio

The water crisis in Flint revealed that the city really has no clue where its lead service lines are. UM-Flint estimated there are at least 4,000 lead service lines in Flint, but there are another 11,000 lines that are made of an “unknown” material.

To make things more confusing, the EPA is finding even homes where records show the service line is lead, when they dig up the line, the line is not made of lead.

A service line is the pipe that gets water from the water main under the road into your home.

Flint is not alone. Many cities don’t have a good estimate of how many lead pipes remain in their communities and where they’re buried.

For years, Jessi Pakiela thought her service line was made of lead. She did some remodeling when she bought her home in Grand Rapids. She remembers her dad saying he could tell her new home had an old lead service line. He was a pipe fitter. So she took his word for it.

Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Jessi Pakiela checks out her water meter pit to verify what sort of material her water service line is made of.

Pakiela works for the city. She actually handles the old records that show where lead service lines are.

But when we looked up the record for her home, Pakiela was surprised to find it said her line was made of copper, not lead.

Pakiela called her dad and it turns out, he doesn’t remember saying her line was made of lead. So we take a closer look at the pipe near her water heater.  

“You can actually see it, this it is where it's coming up from the floor,” she said, pointing to the pipe near her water heater.

She crouches down, scratches hard at the surface of the old pipe with her finger nail.

“It’s not lead because you could scrape it and some of it should come off, actually when I do that you can actually see that it’s copper,” she said. “It's not at all what I thought it would be, but that’s good news.”

Pakiela gets a paper towel and some cleaner and wipes a bit of the pipe down. It’s copper alright. Like a super dirty, 1952 penny.

Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
The water line comes up through a slab under Pakiela's home, near her water heater.

We also check out the meter pit in front of Pakiela’s home. She lifts the large square metal plate in the lawn, unveiling a hole in the ground where the water meter sits. Sure enough, the line on either side of the meter appears to be copper.

“They were saying it was copper coming in and I didn’t believe them and they were right. Turns out they were right in the records. Well at least that’s a good sign right? Reliable records,” she said.

The state of service lines records varies widely

Completely reliable records are pretty hard to come by, not just in Flint, but in cities across the country where there are estimates of how many lead service lines there are.  In many cities, records are good for the part of the service line in the public right of way, but not on private property. But even on the public side, records aren’t all verified or shared with residents in a public way. (Though it’s likely you can call your municipality and get records for your own home.)

It’s been 25 years since the U.S. EPA estimated how many lead service lines there are in the U.S.

Back then, it was 10 million.

These days, the best guess is roughly 6 million. A recent study pegged the range between 5.5 million and 7.1 million.

That guess comes from David Cornwell, President of Environmental Engineering & Technology, Inc. He was hired by the American Water Works Association to break down data from surveys of water operators taken in 2011 and 2013. They got 978 total responses.

“We’re basing our regional stats on the best information that the utilities have at this point in time,” Cornwell said.

He says the accuracy of service line records varies widely city to city.

“There are cities that have actually gone and inspected things. There are cities that have a very, very rough to no idea,” Cornwell said.

In other words, it’s not just Flint with old, potentially inaccurate records.

Look formore research on service line records in Michigan cities in Tuesday’s The Environment Report.

Why the EPA wants more transparency from your local water department

The EPA says water systems should already know how many lead service lines they have and where they’re located. The EPA says communities should’ve compiled and verified this information more than 20 years ago, when the federal Lead and Copper Rule passed.

There is some dispute in the industry on whether this comprehensive list was required. The American Metropolitan Water Association wrote a letter to the EPA disagreeing with the agency’s interpretation of the Lead and Copper Rule.

Joel Beauvais is with EPA’s office of water and says inaccurate records are a potential liability.

“Obviously it’s an incredible area of focus because if you don’t know where the lead service lines are you can’t be targeting those areas to take samples,” Beauvais said.

Local water systems have to sample homes with lead service lines or lead solder to show their water treatments are working.

Remember, Flint’s lead levels spiked because the water wasn’t treated right. If it had been, the Flint water crisis may have never happened. That’s why many other cities point to Flint and say something along the lines of, ‘Yeah, but we’re treating the water how we’re supposed to.’

But increasingly the EPA is saying, not so fast, and wants proof posted online. The federal agency wants things like water tests, which homes are tested, and a comprehensive list showing just where the lead service lines are.

Many water system operators tell me they did verify the records for homes where they test water to show compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule, even if they haven’t verified records for every home in their community.

“We hope that bringing a little greater transparency to this will help folks who know where they are demonstrate where they are. And for those that don’t have adequate information, that it provides some impetus and incentive to try to improve the quality of information that they have,” Beauvais said.

That could take some cities months or years to do, though Flint’s water crisis is adding a sense of urgency.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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