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Science & Environment

Inaccurate Municipal Records Hinder Mapping Of Lead Water Pipes

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The water crisis in Flint, Mich. revealed that the city really has no clue where its lead service lines are. A service line is the pipe that gets water from the main line under the road into your home. Michigan Radio's Lindsey Smith reports Flint is not alone in its struggle. Many cities have a hard time figuring out just where their lead pipes are buried.

LINDSEY SMITH, BYLINE: For years, Jessie Pakiela thought her service line was made of lead.

JESSIE PAKIELA: You can actually see this is where it's coming up from the floor.

SMITH: Pakiela works for the city of Grand Rapids, about a hundred miles west of Flint. She handles the old records that show where lead service lines are. When she looked up the record for her home, it said her line was made of copper, not lead. So we take a closer look at the pipe near her water heater.

PAKIELA: It's not lead because that would be - you could scrape it, and some of it should come off. And actually, when I do that, you can see it's copper.

SMITH: It's copper all right, like a super-dirty 1952 penny. Clean it off a little, and you can see the shiny copper underneath.

PAKIELA: They were saying it was copper coming in, and I didn't believe them. And they were right. Turns out they were right in the records.

SMITH: It's a good sign for Grand Rapids. Completely reliable records are pretty hard to come by, not just in Flint but in cities across the country, where there are estimates of how many lead service lines there are. But they're not verified or shared with residents. It's been 25 years since the EPA estimated how many lead service lines there are in the U.S. Back then, it was 10 million. These days, the best guess is roughly 6 million. And that guess comes from David Cornwell, who was hired by the American Water Works Association to break down data from a survey of water operators taken in 2013.

DAVID CORNWELL: We're basing our regional stats on the best information that the utilities have at this point in time.

SMITH: Do you have any sense on how close those estimates might be to reality?

CORNWELL: You know, it varies by city to city. There are cities that have actually gone and inspected things. There are cities that have a very, very rough to no idea.

SMITH: So it's not just Flint with old, potentially inaccurate records. The EPA says water systems should already know how many lead service lines they have and where they're located. Joel Beauvais is with the EPA's Office Of Water and says inaccurate records are a potential liability.

JOEL BEAUVAIS: Obviously, it's an incredibly important area of focus because if you don't know where the lead service lines are, then you can't be targeting those areas to take samples.

SMITH: Local water systems have to sample the homes with lead service lines to show their treatments are working. Remember, Flint's lead levels spiked because the water wasn't treated right. If it had been, the Flint water crisis may have never happened. And that's why other cities point to Flint and say, yeah, but we're treating the water how we're supposed to. But increasingly, the EPA is saying, not so fast and wants proof posted online - things like water tests, which homes are tested and a list showing just where the lead service lines are. That could take some cities months or years to do, though Flint's water crisis is adding sense of urgency. For NPR News, I'm Lindsey Smith. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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