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Utilities work to remove lead pipes

by ANDREW MACIEJEWSKI, - amaciejewski@wabashplaindealer.com

Citizens inside city limits may have noticed higher lead levels than in the past while reading the 2017 water quality report from Indiana American Water, but officials say they’re in compliance and taking steps to protect consumers.

Last year, Indiana American Water found 10 percent of samples taken above the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) action-level for the Lead and Copper Rule, which is a federal law requiring utilities to alert residents when more than 10 percent of samples taken are above 15 parts per billion (ppb). While the EPA states that no amount of lead exposure is safe, the agency passed the law to protect people from the detrimental effects of lead exposure since lead naturally appears in water but can also leach from service pipes commonly used in old houses and city infrastructure, according to EPA’s website.

While three of the 30 samples taken were above 15 ppb, levels of lead associated with Flint, Mich. were reportedly 17 times higher than 15 ppb, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. Indiana American Water representative Joe Loughmiller said the company constantly meets EPA standards and water that leaves their plant is monitored daily to ensure it is below federal standards.

“We don’t have lead coming out of the plant,” Loughmiller said. “It typically picks it up in people’s plumbing systems and those service lines and within the interior plumbing depending on what those pipes are made of.

“You’re going to expect in older cities and older parts of town where you have lead pipe service lines or maybe where lead solder is used,” Loughmiller said. “You’re going to see some of that, but again, the EPA has a very thorough and specific program.”

The EPA requires that at least 50 percent of samples are taken from homes that have lead-based service lines and another 50 percent from homes with lead water mains. They require the water sampled to be the first draw, after it has sat in the pipes for at least six hours, which allows lead to dissolve into the water from lead piping or fixtures.

Following these regulations, 27 of 30 samples tested below standards, even though the samples contacted lead at some point in their journey to the home’s faucet. Indiana American Water issued warnings to any customers that would be affected by levels above EPA action levels.

Wabash’s water tests in the “normal to non-acidic range,” Loughmiller said. They monitor the water leaving their plant to ensure it is not corrosive because corrosive water can eat through linings that coat lead pipes to protect consumers, Loughmiller said.

Since officials realized lead can cause brain development problems in humans, especially susceptible populations like pregnant women, children, the elderly and people with autoimmune deficiencies, utilities have been replacing lead service lines constantly since the Safe Water Drinking Act was established, according to the EPA.

Loughmiller said they’re replacing lead service lines across the city with polyethylene pipes that are flexible, durable and non-toxic, but until recently, they weren’t able to rid customers’ service lines of lead piping entirely because they could only replace pipes up until the water meter, leaving the portion from the meter to the customer’s tap.

“We are authorized, now that this legislation has passed, to basically go in and replace the full line, all the way up to the house, and we can actually recover that cost and then it just gets rolled into the general rates,” he said. “It’s good because sometimes the homeowners can’t necessarily afford to do it on their own. It can cost a few thousand dollars to do that type of a project.”

Indiana American water submitted a plan to completely eliminate lead service pipes all the way up to the customer’s home, but until then there are guidelines to protect against lead in tap water.

The Centers for Disease Control advises residents to flush their tap by allowing water to run for a few minutes, which allows water that could be standing in the pipes to flow out. The agency also advises people to use cold water for cooking because hot water can contain higher lead levels.