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Lessons on lead- keeping Kentucky’s water safe

By Lanny Brannock

Department for Environmental Protection

Three public employees in Flint, Michigan are facing criminal charges in what’s becoming one of the largest public utility scandals in the country’s history.

The story of Flint, Michigan, where residents and children got lead poisoning from simply turning on their taps, is  a scandal that was avoidable and has regulators  in state and local governments charged with providing drinking water across the country saying, “It could have been me, and I’m glad it wasn’t.”

And it , began with a change that would seem, to someone who didn’t know the chemistry and complexities needed to turn raw water from a river into water safe for consumption, very simple.

Water is just water, after all?

Not quite.

In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan, temporarily switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River, an inland source that can cause greater challenges for treating water than water that is from the Great Lakes. Flint treated the river water, but the water reaching people’s homes was corrosive, allowing it to absorb an unacceptable level of lead from the lead service lines that connected water mains to household plumbing.

It was a catastrophic error, one which has poisoned residents who drank the water, including children, who are the ones most susceptible to lead and its side effects.

Those side effects are compounded by the fact that the damage, which includes mental and physical problems such as learning disabilities, developmental delay, weight loss, hearing loss, kidney damage and brain damage, can be permanent or in some cases fatal.

State water officials in Kentucky know that what happened in Flint isn’t the norm, but it isn’t that far-fetched either.

“We have always paid attention to lead in drinking water, but when the news broke about Flint, it was a huge reminder that we have to be very mindful about water source changes and any other potential issue that could cause lead issues,” said Peter Goodmann, Division of Water Director.  “Our number one priority is public health.”

Goodmann knows all too well, yes, it could happen in Kentucky. Despite only a handful of lead levels exceeding federal standards in the last decade in Kentucky, Goodmann and the Department for Environmental Protection Commissioner, Bruce Scott, wanted to look deeper into the issue of lead in drinking water.

They’ve asked water quality professionals with decades of experience from all across the state to participate in Kentucky’s Lead in Drinking Water Workgroup. The group has been meeting, with the goal of trying to ensure that Kentucky’s water systems provide the best possible potable water and keeping lead from getting into the drinking water supply.

“Through testing, we know when we get an elevated lead sample; source water is almost never the issue. It’s why property owners need to be vigilant if they still have lead service lines, either from the public water system they get water from or inside their property,” Goodmann said.

The vigilance might mean replacing lead lines with PVC pipe or having your water tested regularly.

Public water systems in Kentucky have also been monitoring water within households since the implementation of the federal Lead and Copper Rule in the early 1990s. Lead levels are sampled regularly by public water systems at residences and businesses to ensure drinking water is safe. The results of these samples are reported to the residents and businesses sampled, as well as water system customers. Sample results are also provided to the Division of Water and the United States Environmental Protection Agency for review and action, as appropriate.

The Lead and Copper Rule requires water systems to sample a number of households in their distribution system, based on population. The sampling focuses monitoring on those households most vulnerable to lead and copper contamination, such as single-family homes that contain copper pipes with lead solder, contain lead pipes or are served by a lead service line.

Sampling is conducted over two consecutive six-month periods. If no elevated levels are found, sampling is reduced to annual sampling for two consecutive years, and then every three years if no issues are identified.

The Lead and Copper Rule established that a public water system’s monitoring results must be at or below the lead action level to avoid further monitoring, treatment and other actions. The action level is exceeded when more than 10 percent of the water system’s samples exceed the 15 parts per billion threshold. Exceedance of an action level determines whether systems need to undertake additional monitoring and treatment technique requirements.

But the important news for Kentuckians is, the vast majority of samples show we are meeting standards.

Over the past four years, the 409 Kentucky public water systems subject to the federal Lead and Copper Rule have collected, tested and reported approximately 10,380 water samples for lead at households and businesses. More than 77 percent of these samples had no detection of lead, while approximately one percent of these samples exceeded the action level of 15 parts per billion established by the EPA in the Lead and Copper Rule.

Based on the reported data discussed above, 76 public water systems had a cumulative total of 107 samples over the four year period where lead was detected at a concentration equal to or greater than 0.015 mg/l. The vast majority of these detections were not at a frequency that required additional action under the federal Lead and Copper Rule. However, three of these public water supplies did exceed the federally established action level for lead.

“We know these numbers indicate a high level of competency among our public water systems when it comes to lead,” Goodmann said. “But having the vast majority of systems that meet lead standards is only part of providing high quality, safe drinking water. We have to look forward to make sure that we continue to have the vast majority of systems that meet lead water quality standards.”

As a result, under Division of Water oversight, these systems were required to notify the public via newspaper and other media, conduct sampling of their source water, conduct additional and broader water quality monitoring at the treatment plant and in the distribution system, including restarting lead monitoring, and to formulate a plan and take action to reduce lead levels. All of these public water systems have returned to compliance. Currently, there are not any Kentucky facilities out of compliance with the federal standard for lead.

Public Water Supply System Source Water

In Flint, Michigan, changing water sources created a situation where lead became a significant concern. In Kentucky, if a water system intends to use another source of water, even a new well, the Division of Water engineers review the plans for treating the water and examine corrosion-control methods that could be necessary to ensure that the water does not leach metals, such as lead and copper from pipes, within the distribution system.

To avoid unintended consequences from source or treatment changes, any such changes by a water system require a Division of Water review and approval before they take effect. Pilot studies may be required as part of the review and approval. A new source of water and/or treatment change also brings about changes in the monitoring frequency required for the system for examining lead levels in the water.

The Division of Water technical personnel also review water quality reports, which follow each round of sampling by a system. Based on these reports, the Division of Water may issue recommendations to address any possibility that the water has the potential to leach materials, including lead, from service lines and household plumbing.

Even though Kentucky drinking water systems have been very successful in avoiding significant lead concerns, there is always room for improvement. The Division of Water will continue to work with drinking water industry stakeholders and other state agencies to review lead related protocols to ensure changes in source water and treatment processes are appropriate and sufficient to avoid unintended consequences from source or treatment changes.

In addition, the Division of Water will be in discussion with the Environmental Protection Agency for the need to evaluate the Lead and Copper Rule to ensure that the rule’s provisions and requirements are adequate to protect public health. While the existing rule has provided a good framework for identifying and responding to lead concerns, the events leading to the problems in Flint have shown that there is reason to evaluate the rule and make public safety an utmost priority.

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