Water systems across South Carolina, including the Greenville Water System, do not know where lead service lines or partially-lead lines may be located or how many lead lines remain in use, which makes it difficult to track which homes may be most at risk of lead-contaminated drinking water, an investigation by The Greenville News has found.
At best, most water systems have an estimate based on paper records of when service lines were installed. Some, like Greenville Water, the state's largest water system which provides water to about 500,000 people, have begun to digitize records, but short of digging up lines to physically inspect them, water systems can only guess at the number of lines that may have potential for lead to leach into customers’ drinking water.
In 2009, Greenville Water began to aggressively replace many of the galvanized water mains and service lines that were installed to older homes, spending $5-$7 million per year to replace lines based on a matrix that weighs water quality, history of leaks and the age, location, material and size of the lines.
Lead can build up on the inside of galvanized lines and corrode into the water and potentially contaminate it at the tap. To combat the corrosion, Greenville Water adds a phosphate corrosion inhibitor to the water at its water plants, which limits the amount of corrosion that builds up on the lines.
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Greenville Water does not have any evidence of fully-lead service lines in its system, but historically water mains and galvanized steel service lines in Greenville were connected by a 2-foot long lead “gooseneck” and some of those remain buried beneath streets, particularly in older sections of the system, which dates back to 1898, David Bereskin, Greenville Water System’s CEO told The Greenville News.
Greenville Water has replaced 200 miles of galvanized lines since 2009 and when crews replace the main line, they also replace the service lines that run from the water main to individual water meters, Bereskin said.
Bereskin estimated that the system has 302 miles of galvanized lines and fewer than 3,000 lead goosenecks that still need to be replaced.
But Greenville Water doesn’t have an exact count of the amount of lead in its system.
“We have no way of knowing where they are located,” said Olivia Vassey, Greenville Water System spokeswoman.
Its estimates are based on a sample of the system’s 175,002 service lines, Bereskin said. The only way to get a true count of how many galvanized lines or lead goosenecks that still exist is to check the materials at every water meter in the system, he said.
Greenville Water has a general idea where to look for lines to replace, officials said. It has lines that date back to the early 1900s and the bulk of its galvanized lines were installed in the 1940s, Vassey said.
To combat corrosion of these pipes, all of the state’s large water systems add corrosion control to water, which helps to provide a seal on the inside of service lines to limit the amount of corrosion, according to state water officials.
Greenville Water as a whole has never exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s action level for lead, though individual homes have exceeded the action level of 15 parts per billion in the past, Bereskin said.
The EPA says there is no truly safe level of lead exposure and researchers have called on the EPA to lower its action level, currently at 15 ppb, when the agency reconsiders its Lead and Copper Rule, likely as soon at 2017.
Lead is a dangerous toxin that accumulates in the body over time and can damage brain development among children and cause lower IQs, attention disorders and aggressive behavior, among other brain and nervous system problems. It can affect the health of pregnant women and fetuses and has been linked to kidney problems and high blood pressure in adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization.
Lead has been banned from paint, gasoline and children’s toys. But it remains, to some degree, in most water systems.
The challenge with lead for water systems is that it’s not a toxin that’s filtered out at a water plant, but enters homes from the end of the system, corroding off the pipes that lead to the house or even fixtures or plumbing inside the home.
Water advisory groups say the only way to rid lead from drinking water is to replace the service lines that allow lead to corrode into the drinking water of millions of Americans.
The National Drinking Water Advisory Council, an advisory committee to the EPA, wrote a letter of recommendation to the EPA in December that urged removal of all lead service lines, a task it admitted would require “significant financial resources and time.”
The board of the nation’s largest group of water system operators, the American Water Works Association, of which Greenville Water is a member, this month alsorecommended that water systems need to locate and replace all lead service lines.
A study by the association released this month estimates that 6.1 million lead service lines remain in the U.S. It estimated that 44,000 lead service lines are in South Carolina.
State water regulators aren’t required to keep an inventory of how many lead lines exist among the state’s 695 public water systems, said David Baize, S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s acting water chief.
And though 28 small- and medium-sized water systems have had lead tests thatexceeded the EPA’s action level between 2011 and 2015, none of the systems are currently in violation, a technical word that means each system is properly responding to the exceedances by notifying the public and starting a study to identify possible corrosion and potential fixes.
If exceedances continue, water systems could be required to add corrosion inhibitors to its water, a costly move since many of the smallest water systems don’t treat their water and don’t employ trained staff who could add treatments, Baize said.
And only if those steps fail to lower lead levels would systems be required to begin replacing lead lines under the current EPA lead rule.
No South Carolina water systems are required to replace any lead lines currently, Baize said.
At issue: who owns lines
Lead in drinking water poses particular complications for regulators because lead contamination can occur in sections of the line owned by customers.
Greenville Water owns the water source, the water plants and the mains that deliver water to communities, and it owns a portion of service line, which it calls a service lateral, that runs from the main in the street to the customer’s water meter.
But customers own the line from the meter to their house, and though lead fixtures have been banned for decades, some customers in older homes may still have lead fixtures or lead connections in their home’s plumbing.
And unlike most contaminants, water systems don’t test for lead on their end; they count on customers to collect lead samples for them when water comes out of the tap, after it’s passed through the customer-owned plumbing and fixtures.
To rid the country of lead in drinking water, regulators must figure out how to not only remove lead service lines and goosenecks, but also how to replace the plumbing and fixtures in customer’s houses.
“The difficulty for those utilities that have a lot of lead lines is that even if the utility replaces its side, that doesn’t solve the homeowner’s problem,” said David Cornwell, president of Environmental Engineering and Technology, Inc., an expert on public water policy who helped author the AWWA lead service lines study. “Then how does the homeowner pay for it.”
Bereskin said Greenville Water’s galvanized mains and service lines are safe and the system tests for metals within households for its own quality control in addition to required SCDHEC and EPA tests.
Replacing the lines is needed to reduce water loss, improve water pressure and to reduce customer complaints of water quality and water color. Galvanized lines can sometimes create a reddish tint to the water, Bereskin said.
Different from Flint
Greenville Water received 370 water quality customer complaints in 2015 either online or by phone and responded to each one, he said. After representatives met with customers, seven customers requested water sampling, he said.
If a customer is concerned with their water, they should call Greenville Water and a representative will set up a time to visit, Bereskin said. If a water test is needed, there is no cost to a Greenville Water customer.
Newer homes built after 1986 should not have any lead in their plumbing. Homes built in the early-to-mid-1900s likely have lead goosenecks or lead solder with copper pipes. Homes that have older fixtures that contain lead solder could leach lead from the fixtures into drinking water.
Even plumbing sold before 2014 contains a higher lead content, at eight percent, than is now allowed. In 2014, the EPA changed its Safe Drinking Water Act to lower the allowable lead content in fixtures and plumbing to 0.25 percent.
The EPA says homeowners may want to get their home's water tested if they live in a home built before 1986 or if they know their home contains lead or partially-lead service lines or plumbing.
Water testing kits for lead can be found at most home improvement stores and can be sent to a certified lab for testing.
Along with Greenville Water’s pristine source water from its own watersheds, Bereskin said the system is different from the ongoing human health crisis in Flint, Michigan, because Greenville Water is a separate entity whose sole purpose is to provide clean drinking water whereas the department in Flint was responsible for all utilities.
Greenville Water has its own engineers, scientists and laboratory, is required to add corrosion control to its water and has its own oversight from an independent board of five commissioners.
“We are all professionals and responsible for providing the best quality water we can to the public,” Bereskin said.
Phillip Kilgore, water commission chair, said the commission’s responsibility is to make policy decisions and approve budgets for the system. As part of that, they have tried to stay ahead of the curve with line replacements and programs to prevent failures, he said.
“You don’t want to spend money unnecessarily but we also don’t want to get into a situation where you’re setting yourself up for catastrophic failures,” Kilgore said. “So we’re systematically replacing lines where appropriate.”
Bereskin said the commission’s stewardship and focus on its financial base has positioned the water system to be able to perform line replacements well ahead of what most other communities are able to do.
Lead rule’s limitations
Greenville Water has never had an exceedance of the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule, but that doesn’t mean customer’s water is all lead free.
That’s as much a limitation of the rule as anything, experts say.
A water system must take a percentage of samples at customer’s taps and is only shown as being in exceedance if more than 10 percent of its samples exceed 15 ppb.
The samples are supposed to be taken at the most likely houses where lead could be found, but many customers may believe that their water is clean when it’s never been tested.
Greenville Water takes 50 samples when it tests for lead, Bereskin said. It tests only locations that are considered Tier 1, the most likely places where lead could be found. It tests the same 50 locations every three years as the lead rule requires, he said.
“Because of our excellent quality and reports that have been submitted to the state since the Lead and Copper Rule came into effect, we are now on a three-year testing program,” he said.
Lead has been found at individual homes, but the system has never exceeded the action level, he said.
One home was found with lead above the action level in 2012, according to the system’s consumer confidence report.
When lead is found, the system retests that house to find out if it was an anomaly, and if lead is found again, it takes action, he said.
If lead is found, the home could be added to the system’s replacement program, he said.
Though Greenville Water has been aggressive in its own line replacements, it doesn’t notify customers that they may also need to replace their portion of the lines, Bereskin said.
He said it was not Greenville Water’s responsibility to tell customers what to do with their private property.
“That’s an individual decision for all of the separate homeowners,” he said. “There is really no reason for them to replace their galvanized service lateral if they feel like they are getting good quality water.”
But experts say many customers aren’t aware of the risks lead in their plumbing poses and don’t realize they may have a responsibility to upgrade their lines or fixtures.
Cornwell, who did the lead service line study, said the AWWA recommends utilities notify homeowners of their responsibility to replace privately-owned sections of lines.
He said water systems should also let customers know about potential lead issue when doing work to water lines in the area because of risks for lead to spike.
When utilities disturb the lines, either by doing work in the street or replacing the utility-owned section of the service lines, it will cause particles that have clung to the lines to break free, Cornwell said.
“You can get higher levels of lead at the homeowner because you have disturbed the particles that have adhered to the pipe wall,” he said.
Those systems, like Greenville Water, that do voluntarily replace galvanized or lead service lines may unknowingly cause lead levels to spike for weeks or months in houses near where the work is being done, he said.
Bereskin said he wasn’t worried about that because of Greenville Water’s corrosion inhibitors.
No matter what happens with the EPA’s lead rule in the future, Bereskin said Greenville Water is in good shape with its service lines.
“I don’t believe that Greenville Water is in a bad position as far as lead service lines,” he said. “I believe it’s minimal and our programs of pipe replacement and responding to customers will continue to address this issue. And if the galvanized main program stays on track, we’ll be long done with replacing the galvanized mains before 20 years is up.”
Steps to take if concerned about lead
Assess your home's age or whether it has older fixtures. Pre-1986 homes are more likely to contain partial lead plumbing or service lines.
Call your water company to ask whether service lines from the street to your meter have been replaced.
Ask a plumber to assess whether your home may have lead pipes, solder or fixtures.
Get your home's water tested. Either call your water company to request a test or buy a test from a home improvement store, which can be sent to a lab for analysis.