Just under a month later, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder declared Genessee County, which includes Flint, to be in a state of emergency when a massive amount of lead was discovered in certain areas of the city’s drinking water. On Jan. 16, President Obama declared federal state of emergency for the city authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide $5 million toward relief efforts.
While Flint is the most extreme case in recent memory regarding unsafe drinking water, several other major cities in the country have not met the federal standard set by the EPA for safe drinking water.
In 2011, 24/7 Wall Street compiled a list of ten cities with low quality drinking water based off several factors. The list included major cities such as San Diego, Jacksonville and Houston.
While these cities weren’t experiencing problems with lead in the water, other potentially harmful contaminants were found.
Others cities are making sure they won’t be too late.
Major cities all over the country including Fort Worth have taken extensive measures to remedy such situations.
While other contaminants can be found in the water source, the city has several water treatment plants that take several intensive steps to ensure the contaminants stay below EPA-mandated levels.
“I think there’s a misconception within the media of where the lead comes from,” said Mary Gugliuzza, the communications coordinator for the Fort Worth Water Department. “The lead is not in the source water. The lead is not even in the water when it leaves the water treatment plant.”
Lead contaminates drinking water when it “leeches” off the service pipes responsible for sending water to residences, and private plumbing pipes that distribute water through the residences.
In order for the lead to contaminate the water, it must remain stagnant in a lead pipe without proper corrosion.
“The problem was [Flint] did not have a corrosion control plan when they made a switch in water source, because they didn’t do the studying and testing,” Gugliuzza said.
Fort Worth’s water source includes Lake Worth, Bridgeport Lake and Eagle Mountain Lake, along with several other reservoirs. After water from these sources are put through a thorough sanitation process, they are sent out via approximately 3,400 miles of distribution lines to 1.2 million people in the greater Fort Worth area.
“We regularly take samples of the raw water coming into the plant so we know what’s going on with the raw water,” Gugliuzza said.
Gugliuzza added the problem is that it is nearly impossible to tell which lines are lead-based and which are not. While cities have ceased to use lead pipes since the 1960’s, the cost and logistics of replacing the pipes built before then would be inefficient.
This leaves houses built before the 1960’s particularly vulnerable to lead in their water as lead piping was common in both the private plumbing and service lines, she said.
She added that the problem with the private lines is it is the homeowner’s responsibility to recognize the problem and pay to fix it which is quite costly.
In public service lines, Gugliuzza said the water department ensures all water that is put through the pipes tests above a pH level of eight or higher to avoid corrosion in pipes. Treatment plants do this by adding two chemicals to the water to create a safe balance.
This is part of the city’s corrosion plan, she said, which has been implemented since 1994 following the demands made by the Lead and Copper Rule written and passed by the EPA in 1991. The city revisited the corrosion plan in 2009 to ensure it was still effective.
“We do testing twice a month and when we test, we’re looking at temperature, pH, alkalinity, sulfates and calcium because those are the things that determine if the corrosion control plan is working,” Gugliuzza said. “We hired an outside engineering firm to evaluate the data and they said what we were doing was good.”
Despite this corrosion plan, she said there are still steps the city has to take to completely ensure lead does not find its way in drinking water. While Flint is a extreme situation, lead levels in water still pose a risk.
The Fort Worth Water Department recommends flushing tap water for about 30 seconds in the mornings and in the evening after extended breaks to flush out any possible lead in water. Stagnant water in older lead pipes may allow for lead to dissolve into the water.
Gugliuzza also said the city does lead and copper testing every three years. In 2015 there was one site exceeding the set federal amount of lead that can be found in drinking water.
In a previous testing in 2012, the water department found two sites exceeding the action level. While the sites did exceed the federally mandated level, Gugliuzza said it is not a cause for concern. In the past decade, only once has there not been at least one site exceeding the lead level.
“We’ve always had one or two sites exceed and that is not a violation,” she said. “We go and retest those sites and every time we’ve retested, they’ve passed.”
Gugliuzza said while sites exceeding this level do require additional testing, there is no immediate danger to the residents drinking the water. The city also offers residents free testing to ensure their water is clean.
To test for lead, homes being tested must let the water sit in the pipe for at least six hours and are not allowed to use a faucet with a filter. The homeowners then provide the first sample of unflushed water to the city. This causes the water to be more susceptible to higher levels of lead than normal running water would be, she said.
Newly developed areas of Fort Worth, however, are virtually absent from lead poisoning due to the modern lead-free pipes. If the city were to locate older lead service pipes, Gugliuzza said removing them could be expensive and inefficient.
Outside of cost, she added locating the lines is the first step in solving the problem. Gugliuzza said the city is undertaking a project to get GPS coordinates for all 250,000 meters of lead pipe throughout the city.
She said this will allow residents to know if they have lead pipes, either service or private, so that residents will be able to address the problem once they know they have it.
“We will be working through some kind of protocol to let customers know that this is what we found and how to deal with it,” Gugliuzza said.