Near the end of a press conference on the Flint water crisis last week, one reporter repeatedly asked Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder why the lead pipes that have been poisoning the town weren’t going to be replaced as soon as possible.
The answer, the governor explained, is that Flint is using the same process that drinking water utilities across the United States use to minimize the risk of lead poisoning: They add chemicals to the water that create a protective barrier on the inside of the pipes and prevent them from corroding. It’s a process the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has required since 1991.
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver has since announced Tuesday that the city will replace lead pipes, starting with the homes of small children and pregnant women.
Even before news of Flint's water crisis came to light, public health advocates and water utilities have increasingly questioned the decades-old approach. That's because research shows that any exposure to lead can be dangerous, particularly to pregnant women and children. It can damage the brain, red blood cells and kidneys, and can cause lifelong developmental problems.
That risk and the Flint water crisis has led an influential group advising the EPA to suggest making the removal of all lead service lines a national priority -- something only a few cities have done. "To truly solve the problem of exposure to lead in drinking water, [we] concluded that lead-bearing materials should be removed from contact with drinking water to the greatest degree possible, while minimizing the risk of explosure in the meantime," wrote the EPA National Drinking Water Advisory Committee Working Group.
Replacing lead pipes with pipes made of copper or other materials would be a Herculean task. There are approximately 7.3 million lead service lines throughout the U.S. that connect water mains to buildings. Drinking water utilities like Flint’s often don’t know where lead plumbing is located. Plus, those lead lines often cross between public property and private property, which makes it harder to force property owners to replace their lines.
“Ultimately, removing the lead lines would be optimal,” said Tracy Mehan, the executive director for government affairs for the American Water Works Association, which represents 4,000 water utilities. "But it won’t be cheap, and it will take time. It will take contributions from private owners, from society at-large and utilities."
The push for infrastructure upgrades comes as federal, state and local officials scramble to address the water quality issues in Flint, where the water system and homes have had lead plumbing for decades. Residents didn’t report anything out of the ordinary until April 2014, when the city, under a state-appointed emergency manager, switched the source of its drinking water from Detroit’s Lake Huron to the Flint River. Because Flint failed to add anti-corrosive chemicals to the water -- as required by the EPA -- the new water source corroded the pipes. Lead is still getting into the water even though Flint switched back to Detroit water.
Flint residents began complaining about the quality of the water almost as soon as the switch was made. State officials intially downplayed those concerns until a Flint pediatrician documented high levels of lead in local children's blood and a Virginia Tech researcher showed that lead levels in the water were much higher than the state reported.
The revelations prompted calls for Snyder's resignation. The Republican governor declined to step aside. Instead, he apologized several times to Flint residents and accepted the resignation of the chief of Michigan's environmental agency. He also backed a $28 million aid package for Flint in the Michigan Legislature.
For now, government officials are following federal rules and hope the Detroit water, which is treated with anti-corrosive chemicals, will recoat the lead pipes with a protective layer over time. The 1991 EPA Lead and Copper Rule requires drinking water utilities to take water samples from high-risk homes or buildings every six months. If more than 10 percent of those samples contain more than 15 parts per billion of lead -- which they do in Flint -- the utility must take steps to address it, including using anti-corrosive chemicals.
But there's mounting pressure to make the rule even stricter. Public health officials worry that the threshold for action is too high. “No safe blood level has been identified and all sources of lead exposure for children should be controlled or eliminated,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Lead concentrations in drinking water should be below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s action level of 15 parts per billion.”
The National Drinking Water Advisory Council recently suggested that water utilities fully replace lead service lines. That’s a big change from current regulations, which only require utilities to replace those lines if testing shows high levels of lead and other methods of reducing those levels -- like anti-corrosion treatments -- don’t work.
But Yanna Lambrinidou, who worked with the council to draft that suggestion, criticized the council's report because "it does not ensure that these replacements actually happen, and it does not have a Plan B for water utilities that cannot replace their lines.”
Lambrinidou, the president of Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives and a professor who researched the lead contamination in Washington, D.C’s water in the early 2000s, stressed the need for replacing lead pipes because utilities often underestimate how much lead is already in the water. In Flint, for example, the state had advised residents to “pre-flush” their taps by running them the night before the sample was taken. That cleared the lines of water that had been sitting in lead pipes, which resulted in artificially low test results.
Washington, D.C., replaced some of its lead pipes in the 2000s. (FlickrCC/IntangibleArts)
Madison, Wis., is one of the few cities that have replaced all its lead pipes. It finished putting in 6,200 new service lines in 2012 -- more than a decade after the city mandated property owners to make the switch.
Madison was lucky in that it stopped building new lead lines in the 1930s, several decades before other cities. Still, the process was still tricky. Just locating the lead lines was a “massive undertaking,” said Amy Barrilleaux, a spokeswoman for the Madison Water Utility. It required historical research, surveys and community meetings. Another big obstacle was the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, which prohibited the city from using ratepayer money to subsidize the private owners switching out their pipes. Eventually, the city leased antennae on its water towers and used the revenues to pay for the subsidies.
Similarly, Lansing, Mich., which is advising Flint in its lead removal efforts, is nearly finished replacing all of its lead service lines. Michigan’s capital city spent more than $42 million since 2004 replacing 13,500 lines. It only has 650 to go, and the Board of Water and Light expects to complete those replacements by June 2017. Lansing crews can replace the pipes without digging long trenches. They attach the new pipe to the back of the old pipe, and then pull the old pipe out to the street, leaving the new pipe in place. Weaver, the Flint mayor, praised the approach for being quicker and cheaper than digging up yards.
Lansing, though, has one advantage many water utilities do not: It owns the service lines from the mains all the way up to the water meter. That means it doesn’t have to compel private landowners to replace their pipes, and there’s no questions about subsidizing private property.