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AW assures: Austin’s lead pipes pose little threat

Friday, July 12, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

In the wake of the drinking water scandal in Flint, Michigan, the issue of lead in drinking water has come to the forefront of the nation’s – and Austin’s – attention.

Until July 9, Matt Cullen of Austin Water said neither his team nor many longtime field employees had ever run across lead water service pipes. In fact, he said, it’s been years since anyone has seen a drinking water service line made out of lead – until yesterday, that is, he told the Water and Wastewater Commission at its July 10 meeting. When a service line burst in town, utility workers pulled the records and discovered the pipe that had been labeled copper was actually lead.

Although Austin Water has been investigating its water service lines for two years, this pipe wasn’t recorded as a lead pipe.

Beyond potentially mislabeled pipes, there are 10,249 water service pipes in the city made of an unknown material. Records do not indicate what these pipes are made of.

Cullen told the commission that, based on the water utility’s research, he was “confident” the pipes were not made out of lead and that at this point there is no plan to go into the field and excavate the individual pipes. Other testing methods will be used to determine lead levels.

If lead does appear in the water, Cullen said it is more likely to be from other sources such as internal taps or some of the water lines on the private property side. Overall, “Our customers are at a very low threat,” he said.

The threat of lead in drinking water is reduced in Austin due to the nature of the city’s water, which builds up a layer of scale on the service lines rather than acting as a corrosive stripper. As a result, since the Environmental Protection Agency implemented the Lead and Copper Rule in 1991, Austin’s lead levels have “been well better than what the standards require,” explained Cullen. The rule requires that water utilities provide water with lead concentrations that are less than 15 parts per billion in 10 percent of the consumer taps sampled.

Luke Metzger, the executive director of Environment Texas, told the Austin Monitor that “even while Austin water might lead to less lead exposure, we have found instances where people are still being exposed.” He says this is a public health issue and that the city should actively work toward eliminating it, adding, “There is no safe level of lead.”

The danger of lead in drinking water has spurred the EPA to update the rules and regulations associated with the 28-year-old Lead and Copper Rule, with new legislation requiring cities to proactively locate and replace lead service lines.

Austin is ahead of the game, having just finished a comprehensive catalog of its public water pipe system.

With the expectation that the new EPA rules will be implemented this fall, Austin Water staff cataloged 41,421 service pipes from before 1960 for which they could find records. Lead water pipes were installed until the 1950s, although an outright ban was not made by the federal government until 1986.

Though newer neighborhoods in Austin almost certainly don’t have lead piping, finding those that do is no simple undertaking. To locate lead pipes around the city, Austin Water staff relied on handwritten tap cards to indicate the site of a pipe as well as its material. Many of those tap cards revealed updated materials or had no listed material, Cullen told the commission.

However, 153 of these handwritten records indicated that lead had been installed as drinking water service pipes. Investigations revealed that 95 of those pipes had been updated at some point in the past, but 58 remained in question.

Cullen said that in order to verify what material the pipes were, Austin Water went out into the field and dug them up. “We did not find any that were still lead,” he said.

Still, just over 10,000 service lines in the city are made of an unknown material. Though the EPA has not yet required cities to have a comprehensive map of service line materials, Metzger told the Monitor that regardless of whether it is federal law or not, “at a minimum we should get a handle on the situation … (and) come up with a remediation and replacement plan.”

Cullen told commissioners a replacement plan for lead pipes is a delicate process and can “often lead to worse outcomes than leaving it alone.” Replacement of lead service lines will be done on a case-by-case basis that includes the participation of the homeowner in order to identify that all lead piping both on the public and private side of any building is properly replaced and no lead residue is left in the water.

“This is a very complex issue,” said Greg Meszaros, the director of Austin Water. He assured commissioners that monitoring for lead pipes was not a sporadic effort and would continue. “No lead is safe,” he said.

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