Developing accurate lead service line inventories and making them public: Essential tasks

Tom Neltner, Lindsay McCormick, and Audrey McIntosh

This blog is the first in a series focused on how states are handling the essential task of developing inventories of lead service lines (LSLs) and making them public.

Most communities have a general sense of how many lead service lines (LSLs) they have and what neighborhoods have them. The utilities that manage these community water systems (CWSs) base their estimates on installation and maintenance records, size and age of the service line, and professional experience supplemented with field investigations. It is the 80:20 rule in action; most utilities know enough to scope out the problem, develop a strategy, and set broad priorities.

Utilities hesitate when they are expected to provide precise numbers or say with confidence whether a specific address has or does not have a LSL. It is especially difficult for older neighborhoods where records are particularly weak and there are long histories of repairs.

It takes leadership for utilities to share what they know – and don’t know – about LSLs with their customers and the public. They need to be prepared for questions, including why they don’t know more and what they plan to do to remove the lead pipes. Sharing the information with state regulators and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) brings additional scrutiny, especially if they claim they have zero LSLs.

For these reasons, EDF applauds leaders such as Boston, MA; Washington, DC; Cincinnati, OH; Columbus, OH; Evanston, IL; Providence, RI; and Pittsburgh, PA that have address-specific maps available online showing what is known and not known about each customer’s service line. We encourage you to check out their maps. In the coming months, we will share a study EDF recently conducted that evaluates consumer reactions to various approaches to online maps to help guide communities planning similar efforts.

An accurate, publicly-accessible inventory of LSLs was a key element of the National Drinking Water Advisory Council’s (NDWAC) recommendations to EPA in December 2015 for its overdue revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR).[1] Two months later, EPA sent letters to each governor and state environment/public health commissioner asking, as one of five near-term actions, that they:

Work with public water systems – with a priority emphasis on large systems – to increase transparency in implementation of the LCR by posting on their public website and/or on your agency’s website:

•  the materials inventory that systems were required to complete under the LCR, including the locations of lead service lines, together with any more updated inventory or map of lead service lines and lead plumbing in the system; and

•  LCR compliance sampling results collected by the system, as well as justifications for invalidation of LCR samples.

We reviewed each of the state’s responses to identify which states had asked or were going to ask utilities to submit their service line materials inventory. We also monitored news of other state activity. For each state, we reached out to learn more and acquire the results of such surveys. Some states provided a spreadsheet, others pointed us to an online summary, and others had not yet decided whether or in what form to make results available online. Overall, we identified 13 states with some type of an inventory. See table below for details.[2] As of July 1, 2018, four states require some form of an inventory: California passed a law in September 2016; Illinois did the same in January 2017; Michigan amended its LCR in June 2018; and Ohio requires maps of neighborhoods likely to have LSLs but not an estimated number or location – not particularly useful. Eight other states have conducted voluntary surveys.

StateInventory TypeResults Online# of CWSComments
CaliforniaMandatoryTBD29302016 law amended in 2017. Inventories due 7/1/18 and 7/1/20. Excludes portion from meter to house.
IllinoisMandatoryTBD17492017 law. Due 4/15/18 and annually.
IndianaVoluntaryLimited780Survey in 2016.
LouisianaVoluntaryLimited988Between 2016 and 2018, requested materials inventory from all systems serving 10,000 or more people.
MarylandVoluntaryNo468Survey in 2016.
MassachusettsVoluntary2016 Summary523Survey in 2016. All CWS also required to do a materials survey but provide inventory of LSLs.
MichiganMandatoryTBD13872018 rule. Preliminary inventory due 1/1/20 with complete inventory due 5 years later and updated every 5 year.
New HampshireVoluntaryNo706Survey in 2016 of municipal systems.
New MexicoVoluntaryNo570Survey in 2016.
North CarolinaVoluntaryYes1991Survey in 2016. Utilities that said they had LSLs did not have to provide an estimate.
OhioComplicatedYes11992016 law. Utilities declare either zero LSLs or provide maps where they were likely to be found. No estimate of number of LSLs was required. Initial due in 2017 and five year updates.
Rhode IslandVoluntaryNo89Survey of major systems (date not known).
TexasVoluntaryNo4656Tracking of utilities that reported LSL or lead plumbing in LCR sample site report.
WashingtonVoluntary2017 Summary / 2018 Update22042016 Governor's Directive prompted 2016 survey and with extensive follow-up with large systems.

From EDF’s perspective, each of these states deserve credit for responding constructively in their own way to EPA’s request. However, based on what we have seen so far, we think an inventory must be required for it to evolve into a useful tool for consumers. The response rate to a voluntary survey is too low to be of value and will limit public access to this critical information. And the survey must explicitly cover service lines on private property in addition to public property to avoid confusion and accurately communicate risks to consumers.

We will explore these surveys in future blogs to garner lessons learned that other states can use and EPA should consider in its revision to the Lead and Copper Rule.

[1] See Lead and Copper Rule Working Group Report section 3.1.1 which was unanimously adopted by NDWAC in December 2015.

[2] Number of active community water systems based on EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Information System (SDWIS) November 2017 except for Indiana and Washington State, which provide EDF with the estimate.

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