The effort to get rid of the lead pipes that carry drinking water to Fort Worth homes, schools and businesses is becoming more extensive than initially expected as city Water Department officials are having to grapple with problems stemming from poor record-keeping.
At one time, lead pipes were used for the service lines that stretch from a water main to a customer’s water meter. Lead pipes were banned in 1986, but some installed before then remain in use. Fort Worth’s Water Department is now on a push to eliminate all the lead lines, estimated to be in the thousands.
Lead contamination in drinking water has been a health safety issue and addressed by the water industry for decades, but it has been brought back to the forefront after dangerous levels of the toxin were found in water in Flint, Mich., last year.
Fort Worth’s policy has been to replace the lead service lines to customers on the city’s side of the meter when a water main was replaced. But contractors hired by the city to do that work were not required to document where they found lead pipes, city water director John Carman said.
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They just replaced them and moved on. That’s been our reality. We’ve had a number replaced where we really don’t have a way of estimating or knowing exactly where those were.
John Carman, Fort Worth’s water director
“They just replaced them and moved on,” Carman said. “That’s been our reality. We’ve had a number replaced where we really don’t have a way of estimating or knowing exactly where those were.”
Although Carman said exposure to lead is minimal in Fort Worth, he wants to rid the city of the lead issue altogether. Many cities are headed in that direction.
My view is we actually don’t have much of a problem in Fort Worth. We’ve been in compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule since the day it was put in place.
John Carman, Fort Worth’s water director
“My view is we actually don’t have much of a problem in Fort Worth. We’ve been in compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule since the day it was put in place,” Carman said. “The challenge for us is really that we in fact have lead pipes in our system. There was a time and place where lead was an accepted material to be installed to connect homes to the water system.”
Fort Worth has been testing its water since 1992 for lead and other contaminants. It tests 50 tap water samples from a pool of mostly 100 residences. Testing is done every three years because samples historically clear federal and state regulations, but it did retest in 2015 and this year.
Fort Worth has recorded elevated lead levels at least five times in 250 samples since 2003, including in one sample in 2015, according to Fort Worth’s Drinking Water Quality Reports.
Although it wasn’t part of the testing pool, lead was recently found in samples brought in by the Fort Worth school district. The district has since learned that dozens of its water fountains contained lead. The issue was with the style of fountain that had lead parts, and not the water itself. The district is now replacing 400 fountains at a cost of up to $800,000.
Today, the city maintains 3,500 miles of water main. About half of that, or 1,750 miles, is less than 25 years old, meaning the service lines coming off the mains are not lead because they were installed after the lead pipe ban. Water mains are made from cast iron or ductile iron and are not at issue.
The city can say 4,082 lead service lines have been replaced by city workers since 2004 based on internal work orders responding to a leak in the service or at the meter. That has cost about $11 million in today’s dollars. The new service lines are copper.
Some records from the early 1990s to 2004 show a number of “repairs” on lead service lines, but they are not clear on whether the repairs were actual replacements, Carman said.
The Water Department, though, estimates that several thousand lead lines remain in use. And that doesn’t take into account how many lead pipes remain on the customer’s side of the meter. Lead pipes on the private side of the water meter are the customer’s responsibility.
According to city figures on the age of housing stock in Fort Worth, 45.1 percent, or 117,989 units, was built before 1980 and was probably built using lead plumbing.
It is estimated that 6.1 million lead service lines are in place nationwide, providing water to as many as 22 million people, according to “Why Flint Matters,” an article in the July issue of an American Water Works Association publication. The industry group said it advocates long-term lead service line replacement.
Also, in the past 26 years the number of lead service lines in the U.S. has been reduced by an estimated 40 percent, the article said.
In Fort Worth, the lack of documentation is leading to a change in how the city writes construction contracts for water main replacement, Carman said. Now, engineering firms will be required to know as part of the contract whether lead service lines exist and where.
“We have not required them to do a survey and check to see if there are lead service lines,” Carman said. “On contracts going forward, we will require that.”
Moreover, if a Water Department capital improvement project involves lead service lines, Carman said, those projects will take priority.
“My objective is to get rid of it. It scares people,” Carman said. “I don’t think the risk is high. But at the end of the day, if we just remove the question then we’re going to be in a better place.”
4,082Number of lead service lines Fort Worth crews have replaced since 2004
City Manager David Cooke said lead pipe removal should be a top concern, but fixing the issue is going to take time and money.
“We want to go at it methodically,” Cooke said. “In time, it’s all going to get taken care of. It is a priority and was made a priority for all kinds of reasons.”
The cost of the replacements going back to 2004 has been absorbed by the department’s operation and maintenance budget. Carman said he anticipates at some point asking for bids on replacing what remains once the city has a comprehensive inventory list.
The policy changes in Fort Worth, in part, are coming as a result of the drinking water crisis in Flint, which has ignited federal regulators to take a closer look at the nation’s water supply and whether states and cities are properly treating their water under the 25-year-old Lead and Copper Rule. High concentrations of lead in drinking water can be harmful to young children, causing cognitive and behavioral problems, studies have found.
The EPA published the Lead and Copper Rule in 1991; it requires water systems to monitor water at customer taps. Lead concentrations should not exceed 15 parts per billion in 1 liter of water, or copper concentrations exceed 1.3 parts per million in 1 liter of water, in more than 10 percent of customer taps sampled. If that happens, the system must undertake a number of actions to improve corrosion control.
In Flint, high levels of lead were found in the city’s drinking water. Some blamed lack of oversight on the system and on improper corrosion control. Flint switched its water source as a cost-cutting measure from Lake Huron to the Flint River but didn’t put in proper corrosion controls. The river water was more corrosive to lead pipes, according to published reports.
Lead mostly enters the water as a result of corrosion, or wearing away, of lead-containing materials in service lines and household plumbing, the Water Department said. Lead pipes have very limited risk if the water going through them is made less corrosive to the materials it comes in contact with, according to the EPA.
As part of a five-year, $72 million technology upgrade program, Fort Worth is taking inventory of where it is finding lead service lines and what type of pipe is on the customer side.
Currently, Water Department crews are capturing GPS coordinates for the roughly 250,000 meters monitored by Fort Worth. Those include residential and commercial users. Meter reading will eventually be done electronically, by radio or other wireless signals.
Starting in the inner city, or inside Loop 820, which is believed to have the highest concentration of the city’s older homes, workers are walking meter to meter. While they store the GPS coordinates, they’re also digging below the dirt to see if any lead service lines exist and which side of the meter they are on. Since the work began a couple of months ago, about 10 percent of the meters have been looked at.
The city intends to tell customers what type of pipe they have on their side of the meter. In the meantime, customers can also identify the pipes by using a flat-head screwdriver or a refrigerator magnet, the Water Department said. If scraped, lead pipe is shiny and silver-colored. A magnet will not stick to a lead pipe, but it will stick to galvanized steel pipes. If the line is the color of a penny, it is copper.
Although the city has a strong record of corrosion control, there are some things the customer can do too, the Water Department said.
The department recommends that customers run water from the cold tap for several seconds before drinking and cooking with it. Running the water flushes the line, which is important if water has not been used for several hours, allowing time for lead to get into the water.