Among the discoveries unearthed by Saline’s Michigan Avenue makeover were sections of pipe made out of lead. The water main itself, which is over 100 years old, was cast iron, but lead was found in part of the the service lines – the leads – connecting to the buildings.
“We’ve exposed a couple of leads [here pronounced leeds] as this project has continued,” said DPW Director Jeff Fordice. “So we observed some lead; we also observed some where they’re copper all the way to the main.”
These short sections of lead pipe are called goosenecks because of their curvy shape. They were once commonly used in cities around the country.
The finding was not a surprise. Although lead has been known to be poisonous for at least two thousand years, people never quite appreciated how toxic it could be in small doses. Consequently, it was used in plumbing pipes and fixtures, for pigment in paints, for ceramic glazes on pottery and for leaded gasoline which, when burned in engines, spewed lead into the atmosphere.
It was not until the Safe Drinking Water Act was passed in 1986 that significant reductions in lead content of plumbing was mandated by law. Further limits on lead were enacted in 2011.
The reason lead got into the water in Flint was that it leached from the pipes when the water source was switched to the more corrosive Flint River.
Fortunately, Saline has been using an orthophosphate additive in municipal drinking water for some time. This non-toxic additive reacts with lead and copper to coat plumbing pipes in a way that prevents leaching of lead and copper into the water. This is the crucial step not taken by Flint which could have mostly prevented their lead crisis.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has been reviewing water regulations as a result of the Flint fiasco. They are drafting new rules that affect the City of Saline.
Recently the state required all public utilities to identify areas most likely to have lead components in the city’s supply lines. City staff have identified two zones, Michigan Avenue where replacement of these pipes is underway and North Ann Arbor Street between McKay and Harper.
DPW Director Jeff Fordice said that identifying high risk areas was difficult due to the paucity of records. In the past there was no reason to note when lead pipes were installed because it was standard practice. So the city staff did risk assessment with the information they had.
The two areas that were designated as higher risk were so rated because of the age of the main and the fact that lead connectors have been found in both locations.
“Generally speaking, when we replace water mains, we replace the water lead [here pronounced leed] under the street, so that we have all new piping under the street,” Fordice said.
Because of elevated concern over lead, scheduled replacement of the North Ann Arbor Street main has been moved up to the summer of 2017. Alas, another road near downtown will be torn up next year.
Although this section was repaved in recent years, it was just a “mill and fill” operation that was done when cities were asked to participate in an economic stimulus program with “shovel-ready” projects after the great recession.
The extra cost of the Ann Arbor Street water main project was figured into the water/sewer rate increases that have already been approved for fiscal year 2017.
Besides planning to eliminate all lead in the water supply network under Saline streets, the city has also sent out letters to all people in the areas at risk. The Michigan Avenue area is doubly at risk this summer because vibration from construction activities could also shake loose particulate lead.
Homeowners and businesses in these areas have been advised of ways they can reduce their exposure. These include cleaning faucet aerators, flushing pipes when water has been standing in them for a long time (e.g. overnight) and using a filter.
After next year, Fordice said that lead from the city supply lines should be “just about nil” but this still does not guarantee lead-free water. Components of the plumbing system within individual homes could still contain lead, including faucets and lead-containing solder on copper pipes.
The city is also encouraging those with concerns to get their water tested.
“We’re trying to make it easier for people to test for lead in their water,” said Bob Scull, Water Production and Wastewater Treatment Superintendent. “They can contact me. We have sample bottles and instructions that are pretty easy to follow.”
The cost of this test will be a $10 lab fee plus an additional administrative fee that is yet to be determined.
The identification of areas of concern may also affect how the city tests for lead and copper. They are required by law to sample at least 20 homes every three years to verify that lead is not getting into the water.
Areas tested are supposed to include places of greater risk of contamination. In the past this meant older homes, but street address may also become a criterion.
Part of the testing procedure is to sample water that has been sitting in the pipes for at least a few hours. If there is leachable lead in the lines this allows the process to occur.
Saline has been using this test procedure for years, including two sites on North Ann Arbor Street. However, the findings have been delightfully boring.
“It’s been pretty uneventful really,” said Scull. “I mean we haven’t had any results to speak of.”
Due to good planning and good fortune, Saline has avoided the scourge of lead-containing drinking water that has plagued other cities like Flint. Hopefully, diligent and scientifically-informed stewardship will keep it that way.