Tom Neltner, J.D., is Chemicals Policy Director
Transparency is an essential aspect of any successful program to reduce lead in drinking water. Knowing if you have a lead service line (LSL)—the pipe that connects the main under the street to the building—can help you decide whether to use a filter or replace the line. If you are looking for a home to rent or buy, the presence of a LSL can be a factor in your choice. Transparency can also help reassure consumers that their utility is aware of the problem and committed to protecting their health. The challenge for many water suppliers is that they often don’t have perfect information about the presence of LSLs. But incomplete information is not a reason for failing to disclose what is known, what is uncertain, and what is unknown.
In a February 29, 2016 letter to the states, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) asked states to increase transparency by posting on either the state's website or have it posted on local utilities' websites:
“the materials inventory that systems were required to complete under the [Lead and Copper Rule] including the locations of lead service lines [LSLs], together with any more updated inventory or map of lead service lines and lead plumbing in the system.”
In response to this letter and systemic issues brought to light about lead in drinking water in the village of Sebring, Ohio and Flint, Michigan, the State of Ohio enacted pragmatic legislation crafted by Governor John Kasich’s administration and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (Ohio EPA). Among its supporters was the Ohio Environmental Council. One provision in the law requires community water systems to
“identify and map areas of their system that are known or are likely to contain lead service lines and identify characteristics of buildings served by the system that may contain lead piping, solder, or fixtures . . .”
Utilities must submit the information to Ohio EPA as well as the departments of Health and of Job and Family Services by March 9, 2017 and update this information every five years.
To help utilities comply, Ohio EPA released draft guidance in September 2016 and laid out four resources to identify buildings likely to contain LSLs: 1) code and regulatory changes; 2) historical permit records; 3) maintenance and operation records; and 4) customer self-reporting. It recommended that utilities submit the maps in PDF format and identify areas likely or known to contain LSLs using different colors.
Ohio’s three largest cities, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus, have taken different approaches to LSL transparency. Cincinnati embraced the requirement and took it a step farther. It provided detailed on-line maps, modeled off Washington DC’s approach, enabling the public to search an address or view a map that tells them whether or not the service line is made of lead or if the material is unknown. The city provides information for both the portion of the service line owned by the utility (referred to as the “public side”) and the line on private property (referred to as the “private side”). It uses the best available information but does not guarantee accuracy. Users must click on a disclaimer to access the site. Consistent with Ohio EPA guidance, the city invites customers to submit updated information to the utility by email. This level of detail allows any consumer to make informed choices whether they are buying or renting a home, picking a child-care facility, or deciding whether to use a filter.
In contrast, Cleveland has not gone as far as Cincinnati. It has an on-line address search tool supplemented with static color-coded map. The tool only provides address-specific information on the public side of the service line but not the private side. This risks giving users the false impression that the lack of a LSL on the public side means that there is no LSL when there may still be lead pipe on the private side. However, Cleveland reports that preliminary surveys show that less than 3% of lines on private property as lead pipe.
Cleveland reported to me that it is open to considering an interactive map similar to Cincinnati and providing an option to allow customers to provided updated information. This interactivity should make it easier for potential renters and homebuyers to scan a neighborhood to identify homes without LSLs.
In response to my inquiry, Columbus reported that it will submit a map similar to Cleveland and make it publicly available within the next month or so. The map will be a PDF showing areas where their records indicate a home has a publically-owned lead service line. They are evaluating a searchable database as a possible future enhancement.
Replacing lead pipes is one of the best means for reducing the risk of lead exposure from water—a major source of lead after paint. A critical step towards this goal is building an inventory of LSLs, starting with the best available information—what is known and what isn’t known. While it may be a difficult step for a utility to admit it does not know whether the public or private side of a service line is made of lead, it is critical to make this information available in a user-friendly format that allows property owners to update and correct the information. The City of Cincinnati and State of Ohio serve as a model for other communities.