The city's Office of Inspector General is sounding the alarm about the possibility of lead making its way into pipes of homes and businesses throughout New Orleans after some water line repairs were made in recent months and as the city and the Sewerage & Water Board begin $2.4 billion worth of infrastructure work along 400 miles of city streets.
In a report released Wednesday morning, the IG said the city and S&WB have not alerted residents about the danger or provided them with information on how to reduce the risk of increased lead levels that might happen as some lead service lines are partially replaced or as nearby work could affect them, sending some lead particles into interior pipes.
The S&WB denied that claim, though, and said it is working to notify residents about that possibility weeks before any work begins.
“We believe, quite honestly, we are addressing it,” Executive Director Cedric Grant told reporters called to the S&WB’s headquarters Tuesday evening ahead of the report’s release.
OIG Lead Exposure and Infrastructure Reconstruction (Story continues below document)
Service lines funnel water from a main line under a street to a meter box and into a home or business. Many are made of lead, and replacing or disrupting them can result in elevated risk of exposure to lead in drinking water for weeks, if not months, Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux told WWL-TV and The New Orleans Advocate during an interview earlier Tuesday.
The IG report suggests the city and S&WB should develop a plan that, at the minimum, will:
- Alert people about the health risks associated with partial replacement of lead service linesand other infrastructure work that might disturb those lines.
- Notify people ahead of partial line replacements or work that could affect the lines.
- Provide people with instructions on how to flush exterior and interior plumbing lines after a service line replacement or disruption.
- Distribute water filter kits and refills to residents who might be exposed to elevated lead levels after a service line replacement or disruption.
- Provide water quality testing at locations affected by partial line replacements or disturbances until there is evidence lead levels have fallen.
“I think it’s extremely serious,” Quatrevaux said. “It’s the most serious thing we have reported on, for certain.”
He added, “We have to do whatever it takes to make everybody who lives in New Orleans know what to do when the city or Sewerage & Water Board says we’re going to begin construction tomorrow on your block.”
A 2015 S&WB report said there are about 143,000 service lines in the city. But the agency does not have records of where lead service lines are located or how many there are. That lack of information, combined with the fact that some lead service lines have been replaced in the past for myriad reasons, makes it unclear how many homes might be affected by replacement work.
As a result, Grant said, the utility is working to get the word about possible lead spikes to customers 45 days ahead of any planned work. Some notices are mailed, others will be placed on doors of homes in affected areas, and still more are placed in public buildings around the city.
“There can’t be enough awareness,” Grant said.
The IG report was spurred by a separate inspection of the S&WB’s water quality testing. The concern about possible lead spikes during the ongoing repairs was a “much more immediate problem,” Quatrevaux said.
S&WB says the water is safe Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux says he doesn't know because he hasn't tested it yet— Sheba Turk (@ShebaTurk) July 19, 2017
Lead was regularly used for water service lines across the country until the 1980s because of its durability and pliability, which made it easy to work with and long-lasting. It was also used in countless other products.
But the prevalence of lead was linked to a sharp and extremely dangerous rise in lead levels in children's blood in the early 1970s, resulting in federal regulations aimed at reducing its use, particularly in plumbing fixtures and water pipes.
When a water system voluntarily replaces lead service lines, it’s not legally required to notify affected residents or businesses, implement a public-education program or conduct water quality testing. That fact concerns Quatrevaux.
“We need a really aggressive, really significant program. It should be hard to look at anything the city produces without getting a warning about lead in the water,” he said. “The good news is if people know what to do, they can protect themselves. But somebody has to tell them, and they have to tell them when the construction is going to take place.”
While a 2015 S&WB report mentioned that lead service lines would be replaced, the IG's new report says, it “failed to convey a sense of urgency … (and) it did not provide residents with information about how to mitigate the risk of increased lead exposure caused by partial LSL replacement or LSL disturbances.”
The IG report notes that partial lead service line replacements “create an increased risk of releasing both dissolved and particulate lead into the property’s water lines.”
Lead service lines that are removed will be replaced with polyethylene or copper pipe. And while contractors will in some instances replace the part of the service lines buried under public property between the water main and the meter box, lines buried on private property between meter boxes and homes will remain in place.
SWB Door Hanger - LSL Replaced (Story continues below document)
The IG’s office suggested developing programs that can help people replace lead lines on their property, since that can be cost-prohibitive for some customers, or else providing them with filtration systems.
Nolan Lambert, the S&WB’s attorney, said the agency has begun to investigate ways to help customers shoulder the cost of replacing lead lines. But he said its hands are tied right now since public funds cannot be used on private property.
“There are alternatives. It’s called filtration,” Quatrevaux said.
Grant said a program to provide filters is being investigated as well but that it was too early to say if one can be put in place. “We take this extremely seriously," he said. "This is an evolving process.”
Ultimately, Quatrevaux said, the key is educating people.
“You need to get out there and shut off your water before it gets into your house, and then you need to start flushing your interior lines. You need advance notice, you need follow-ups,” Quatrevaux said. “You’ve got to engage that person.”