Replacing lead pipes first depends on being able to find them

Ohio is investing in lead water line mapping capacity in communities across the state to prevent lead poisoning.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced in March that his three-year-old H2Ohio Initiative is investing $4 million to locate, remove and replace toxic lead pipes in various communities across the state. The state environmental protection agency will distribute spreadsheets to state water systems that will ultimately be used to populate a statewide database of lead pipe locations that can also be used to track public water system assets.

The problem with mapping lead lines is that when water lines are installed, they are buried several feet in the ground. Records of these installations were often on index cards or paper charts, and many public works departments did not record what pipes were made of, according to one report. Because some paper records have been lost and information has not been digitized, the only way to know for sure if a pipe is lead is to dig it up and examine it.

The last time the state mapped lead pipes were mapped was 2017, Ohio law required providing a map of known publicly owned lead utilities and evaluating lead monitoring points. “Most of the work product received from the water systems was manual (not electronic), including hand-drawn maps,” James Lee, media relations manager for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said in an email to GCN.

“It’s important to understand that it is the public water supply systems themselves that are responsible for locating and reporting the location of their respective leading utilities to the Ohio EPA,” he said. “Ohio awaits guidance from the US EPA on preferred technologies to determine which customers have leading service lines at the local level. For now, it is up to the public water supply system to decide what technology to use.”

Under the project, known as the Lead Service Line Replacement Grant Program, six communities were awarded nearly $2.2 million to remove and replace pipes that were already mapped and ready for replacement. This work will eliminate nearly 500 leading service lines. An additional $1.25 million in H2Ohio funds was used for senior service line replacement projects in child care facilities in Cincinnati and Cleveland.

In May, DeWine announced a grant of approximately $2.1 million from H2Ohio to assist 48 public water systems with plumbing identification and mapping. It also offers mini-grants of up to $50,000 each to individual public water systems and $600,000 to the Rural Community Assistance Program and the Ohio Rural Water Association for mapping assistance.

Permitted uses for the new grant funding include hiring staff to manually examine records that could help guide the lead-mapping project at the local level, Lee said.

The database will help Ohio meet lead and copper rule improvement regulations, he added. The US Environmental Protection Agency issued it in December 2021 to protect communities from exposure to lead in drinking water. The month before, the bipartisan infrastructure bill allocated nearly $3 billion to replace lead water pipes.

The funding follows studies into the dangers of lead exposure, including brain and kidney damage. Flint, Michigan made headlines in 2014 when about 99,000 residents were exposed to lead in their drinking water. The state recently rolled out a digital dashboard for the city of Benton Harbor, which was first identified as having lead contamination in 2018.

This isn’t Ohio’s first attempt to eliminate lead in drinking water. In 2000, the US EPA granted Toledo, Ohio $200,000 to use artificial intelligence to identify lead pipe.

A “pipe farm” test stand was set up on the city’s property. According to a report, it features a mini-manifold system with a water line and several connecting pipes made of copper, galvanized steel, and lead. On site, innovators can test whether their technology can detect lead pipes without digging up and inspecting them.

“By providing communities with this assistance in creating truthful and accurate maps of lead lines in their communities, they are better prepared to start their own replacement projects,” Ohio EPA director Laurie Stevenson said in a press release.

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in Northern Virginia.

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