Lead pipes raise water-quality concerns in New Bedford
By Evan Lips | March 21, 2016, 19:58 EST
NEW BEDFORD – Lead pipes and water quality have recently made headlines in the biggest city on the South Coast of Massachusetts.
New Bedford officials estimate the city of about 95,000 people has about 3,000 lead pipes connecting homes and businesses to water mains, and those can add lead to drinking water. Replacement work has been under way for over a decade, but at about 200 lines a year, it still has a long way to go.
In January, the city reported that tests conducted in 2015 discovered “elevated levels of lead in drinking water in some homes.” Out of 140 residences checked, elevated levels were discovered in 17.
With Flint, Michigan’s, lead-laden water woes making national headlines, the public is now more than ever tuned in to the health risks. And for good reason, apparently. A USA Today investigation this year turned up almost 2,000 public water supply systems with elevated levels around the U.S., while in Newark, New Jersey’s biggest city, unacceptably high levels of lead were found in drinking water in dozens of public schools.
In the Boston area, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority on Monday announced a new $100 million fund to help the dozens of communities it serves replace the thousands of lead service lines still in use in those cities and towns. But New Bedford isn’t served by the agency so doesn’t have access to the no-interest loans offered through the new fund.
New Bedford relies on its own water sources, a network of five freshwater ponds situated about 15 miles to the north of the fishing port.
The city has been steadily replacing older service lines which may contain lead for at least 15 years, according to Ron Labelle, commissioner of the city’s Infrastructure Department. About 3,000 lines, about 12 percent of the total, are slated to be replaced, he said Monday in an interview.
“We’ve been systematically doing this since I got here and it’s definitely part of our overall program,” said Labelle, who noted that he’s held the position for 15 years. So the replacement plan would mean all the lines will be lead-free by 2031.
New Bedford’s challenges are far different than those residents confront in Flint, where a change in the source put more acidic, corrosive water into the system, leaching lead from old pipes. The ponds supplying New Bedford represent the largest natural water source in the state, Labelle said, pointing out that the Quabbin Reservoir that serves Boston and many suburbs was man-made.
“The city also owns the land around the ponds and that’s critical,” Labelle said, as it helps to prevent pollutants from entering the supply. “We own over 4,000 acres of watershed. We over the years have bought up a lot of property to ensure there’s no development around our ponds.”
But New Bedford, like hundreds of other Bay State communities, sunk lead-based service lines underground decades and sometimes even more than a century before the health risks were known.
“Up until 1986 plumbers were using solders with lead in them,” Labelle said, including on drinking water faucets. “Up until 1992, household water fixtures had lead in them.
“For us it’s not the source but the utilities, the pipes in the ground themselves, that have the lead,” he said. On way to keep lead at a minimum in the water is to reduce its acidity, making it less corrosive.
Labelle said the city has cranked up the treatment of its drinking water to “inhibit” any leaching that may occur in its network of pipes and service lines. While the January report noted that lead levels at the tap “have dropped by over 90 percent since 1992,” the problem hasn’t been completely eradicated.
Especially in older multi-family buildings, just testing the water for lead content can be a significant challenge, according to a recent New Bedford Standard-Times report. LaBelle said that lead tests are at their most accurate once water has been sitting undisturbed in pipes for at least six to eight hours. The problem that presents in multi-family homes involves making sure that all the residents leave taps closed and showers, baths and toilets unused for that long before test samples are taken.
Labelle told the newspaper that city workers are frequently rebuffed when asking residents during door-to-door visits if they can perform the tests.
Mayor Jon Mitchell said that while he wants to see tests done at multi-family homes, but he told the Standard-Times that the problem “is a logistical one.”
“The primary focus of the testing is accuracy and that’s extremely difficult to ensure in multi-family homes,” the mayor told the paper.
The city has improved the quality of its water under Mitchell’s administration. In December, New Bedford was removed from the state Department of Environmental Protection’s list of municipalities whose drinking water was flagged for having elevated lead levels, according to the USA Today report.