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NC utilities to receive $47 million to keep toxic lead out of drinking water

Beneath the yards of an untold number of homes in North Carolina lay water lines installed 100 years ago, when Calvin Coolidge was president. Some of these service lines, which send drinking water from the main pipes to the houses, contain lead, a neurotoxin.

When the drinking water passes through the contaminated line, it could carry the lead into the home. From there, the contaminated water flows through the tap into the glass of sweet tea, bottle of baby formula, and kettle of homemade soup.

Lead in drinking water is a public health crisis. Children are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of lead because their brains are developing. They can suffer irreversible brain damage, resulting in lifelong cognitive and behavioral problems. (The 2016 water crisis in Flint, Michigan, involved lead; many children in that city had double the blood levels deemed unsafe by public health officials.) Yet even adults exposed to lead can develop high blood pressure, as well as reproductive, kidney and brain disorders.

There is no safe amount of lead. The EPA Action Level in drinking water — the concentration at which a utility must address the contamination — is 15 parts per billion. It applies to public water supplies only, not private wells.

Types of pipe: Lead is dull, very soft and will turn a shiny silver color when scratched. Magnets will not stick to lead or copper. (Photo: EPA)

Lead service lines were primarily installed from the late 1800s to the 1940s. However, some communities installed them through the 1980s until they were banned by the federal government in 1986, according to the EPA. In North Carolina, State Plumbing Code banned the use of lead in these materials in March 1987.

Nonetheless, there are still tens of thousands of miles of old pipes sending contaminated drinking water into homes nationwide. Low-income neighborhoods and communities of color are often at particular risk because governments have historically failed to invest in those areas, leaving the infrastructure both above and below the ground to crumble. Now the EPA is proposing to require all public water systems to inventory their service lines and to replace any lead service lines as quickly as possible – at least 7% of their respective totals each year. The goal is to eliminate all lead-containing service lines in 10 years.

Because of the expense to utilities and their ratepayers – an estimated $45 billion nationwide – Congress appropriated $15 billion to be divvied among the states to help offset the cost. In North Carolina, the Division of Water Infrastructure received $87 million. Of that, it has awarded $47.5 million in loans and grants to nearly 60 public water systems to inventory, find and replace lead service lines. The division is expected to fund more projects this year, which will likely exhaust the appropriation.

“The new resources … provide a tremendous opportunity to make rapid progress on permanently removing a significant source of lead in drinking water and achieving major improvements in public health,” an EPA guidance document reads.

This diagram shows the distinction between service lines owned by the utility and the customer. Regardless of who owns the line portion, the utility must replace it if it contains lead or is downstream from a pipe that does. However, lead plumbing within a home is the responsibility of the property owner, not the utility. (Image: Courtesy of EPA)

Whether a utility receives funding or not, it still must comply with EPA rules in finding or replacing the lines:

When the public side of lead service lines or galvanized pipe is replaced, if the homeowner’s side also contains that material, the utility must also replace it.Galvanized pipes must be replaced if they are downstream of lead-containing service lines.Connectors and goosenecks containing lead should be tracked.The deadline for utilities to inventory their systems is Oct. 14, 2024.Utilities must make the inventory publicly available, and in multiple languages if there are non-English speakers in the service area.Water systems serving more than 50,000 people must provide inventories online.Utilities must notify their customers if service lines were found to contain lead, or if the line status is unknown; this information must be provided within 30 days of when the inventory is complete. That means all North Carolinians should know whether their utility found lead service lines by Nov. 14, 2024.

Newsline contacted several utilities that received state funds about their plans for the money. In addition to a full list of utilities that received money, here is a document showing the utilities that reported exceedances for lead in the drinking water since 2005, according to the state’s Drinking Water Watch database. One sheet shows the municipally owned utilities; the other is for Aqua North Carolina. For example, in 2005 the City of Durham reported 30 exceedances; the utility had changed a chemical in the treatment system that also corroded some customers’ old plumbing, releasing lead into the drinking water.

More recently, Raintree, a Gaston County community that is on the Aqua NC system, reported five exceedances from 2018 to 2020, state records show.

Asheville: $1.9 million to find and replace lines

In Asheville, there are roughly 60,000 water connections system wide. Of those, 300 have been identified as galvanized lines, Clay Chandler, the city’s public information officer, told Newsline. While not made of lead, galvanized lines can absorb it if they’re downstream from a lead pipe. For this reason, the city is replacing all utility-owned galvanized lines systemwide. That requires excavation – in mountainous terrain – and installation of a new tap and service line.

Part of the cost will be offset by a $1.9 million grant from the state to replace lines in the Shiloh neighborhood, a historically Black community of 1,200 households on Asheville’s south side. Homes in this area were built between the 1930s and 1960s.

Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, Wilmington, $4.16 million to replace lines

CPFUA has tested numerous locations with lead goosenecks and galvanized service lines and has never found lead exceedances at these locations, according to utility spokesman Vaughn Hagerty. Almost all the galvanized service lines that have been found are in older areas of the City of Wilmington, mainly in or near downtown, Hagerty said.

The utility is completing its inventory of galvanized service lines and has identified approximately 430 that belong to CFPUA. Of those, approximately 130 also have galvanized service lines that belong to homeowners.

The utility will use its funding to remove the public side services lines and certain homeowner side service lines at no cost to CFPUA’s ratepayers or homeowners.

“There will be significant communication and coordination with these customers prior to, during, and after this work,” Vaughn said. Each actual pipe replacement typically takes less than a day, though any final paving and lawn restoration required may take additional time.

The most common sources of lead in drinking water are old plumbing fixtures in customers’ homes and businesses that can leach lead into water. To help prevent this from occurring, water utilities employ corrosion-control programs. CFPUA adds orthophosphate, which forms a protective coating inside pipes and plumbing fixtures, according to the utility.

Aqua North Carolina, five counties, $2.6 million to inventory lines for possible lead

Aqua North Carolina, a private utility company with 300,000 water and sewer customers in the state, will use its funds to take stock of its service lines in Cumberland, Gaston, Hoke, Surry and Warren counties. Property records will show when a home was built, indicating whether it could be connected to lead service lines. Homes built after 1987, when North Carolina followed the federal ban on any use of lead in water lines, are unlikely to have contamination issue.

The inventory will require “going out in the field and putting a hole in the ground to find materials,” said Aqua North Carolina spokeswoman Heather Keefer. The state funding won’t cover the entire cost of conducting the inventory. It’s unclear whether Aqua will pass on the additional costs to customers, Keefer said. That would require permission from the state utilities commission.

The utility used the state’s drinking water loan application criteria, which prioritizes underserved communities, to identity high scoring projects and to reduce the financial impact to the community. The five counties selected included communities that met the objectives for the funding program and had the best chance of receiving the funds, Keefer said.

More than 40 utilities received a total of $47 million in federal funding to inventory, find and replace lead service lines and some galvanized steel pipes. A full list of the utilities and the amounts can be accessed by clicking here. Some utilities received funding in two rounds; Aqua North Carolina received money to inventory lines in multiple counties. (Map: Lisa Sorg)

If you think your interior plumbing contains lead, you can test it using publicly available kits; costs range from $15-$20. To reduce your exposure, use only cold water for drinking, cooking and making baby formula. Consider using a water filter, including tabletop pitchers. Before drinking, flush your pipes by running your tap, taking a shower, or doing laundry.

To learn how to find out what’s in your drinking water, Newsline has a 12-minute video to help you navigate the state’s website, Drinking Water Watch.

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: info@ncnewsline.com. Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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