By Jordyn Grzelewski
Though stories from Flint, Mich., and Sebring have revealed the dangers of poorly regulated water systems, the most recent Ohio Environmental Protection Agency reports on major Mahoning County water suppliers’ service areas do not show any dangerous levels of lead and copper.
The EPA requires public water systems to monitor drinking water for lead and copper. Water distributors in Ohio must collect samples from sites that meet certain EPA criteria and submit results to OEPA every three years.
In the Mahoning Valley, OEPA collects results from dozens of water systems ranging from large suppliers such as the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District to noncommunity systems such as those at schools, churches and mobile-home parks.
A finding that more than 10 percent of samples in a compliance period have more than 15 parts per billion of lead or 1,350 ppb of copper triggers a response. The EPA requires the system to take action to control corrosion and inform the public of the risk.
Water can corrode metal – such as lead and copper plumbing – when it’s too acidic, or “aggressive.” A normal function of treatment plants is to monitor pH levels and maintain them at appropriate levels by adding chemicals such as lime.
Officials believe acidic water corroded pipes in some houses serviced by the village of Sebring’s water system, causing lead and copper to leach into drinking water. The finding of elevated lead and copper levels recently triggered the OEPA to issue an advisory to people who get their water from that system; delayed notification of the public in that case has raised the ire of some state lawmakers and the public.
The Vindicator examined the most-recent lead and copper testing results for the Struthers division of Aqua Ohio and the city of Youngstown; The city gets its water from the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District.
The Struthers division of Aqua Ohio, which operates a water-treatment plant on state Route 170 in Poland Township, runs water to roughly 20,000 connections in the area. That plant serves customers in Struthers, Poland, Lowellville, New Middletown, Coitsville, Boardman, Beaver, Canfield, Springfield, Brookfield, Hubbard and Lake Tomahawk, according to the Aqua America website. Aqua Ohio distributes water to roughly 200,000 connections in the state.
In 2014, 90 percent of Aqua Ohio’s samples had less than 2 ppb of lead and less than 90 ppb of copper, according to an OEPA report.
Aqua Ohio’s 2014 test results are based on 30 samples collected from sites in Boardman, Poland, Struthers and New Middletown.
The number of sites in the OEPA lead- and copper-testing process is determined by the number of people served by the water system.
Water systems, which conduct the testing, when possible must collect samples from what the EPA calls “tier 1 sites,” which are defined as single-family residences that contain copper pipes with lead solder installed after 1982 or contain lead pipes; and single-family residences with lead-service lines. Multifamily residences with such piping can be included if they make up 20 percent of the structures served by the water system.
For systems that have lead service lines, 50 percent of samples must be collected from sites with lead service lines.
“It’s generally a place that we know with confidence has lead plumbing or service lines,” said Jeff La Rue, an Aqua Ohio spokesman. “If someone wanted to cheat the test — and the EPA is on to this — they would choose somewhere with a plastic service line. And the EPA isn’t going to let that happen.”
Aqua’s 2014 results were primarily drawn from a few neighborhoods, mostly in Boardman and Poland. Seven of 30 samples, for example, were taken at Angiline Drive residences in Boardman that primarily were built in the late 1980s. Five samples were taken from houses on Autumnwood Trail in Poland that were built in the 1970s and 1980s.
Of those samples, all had copper service lines and interior plumbing made out of copper pipes with lead solder, according to the report.
La Rue said Aqua bases its sample-site selection not only on where it knows there is lead plumbing, but on which customers will agree to testing. Some customers may be unwilling to participate; the testing process requires them to collect a sample from tap water. The sample must be collected from taps used for drinking and that have been undisturbed for at least six hours.
Water systems are then required to notify each individual sample site of the results. They are supposed to use the same sampling sites each time they test, if possible.
Aqua says its customers have no reason to worry about lead or copper leaching into their drinking water, and believes the testing process is adequate to confirm that.
“Aqua remains extremely confident that the water we’re delivering to customers from our Poland plant meets or exceeds all regulatory standards. That confidence comes from vigilant testing and investments in replacing old infrastructure throughout our systems,” said La Rue.
Although testing is done relatively infrequently, La Rue said Aqua remains confident that its customers are safe because it closely monitors its water’s chemistry to prevent it from becoming corrosive.
“As long as you don’t change things drastically, like changing the source water, the ability of water to collect lead and copper is pretty predictable,” he said.
The city water system, which serves 148,000 people, gets its water from the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District.
MVSD, which serves roughly 220,000 people in Mahoning and Trumbull counties, gets its supply from the Meander Creek Reservoir. The communities that get water from MVSD have their own distribution systems and must individually report lead and copper test results to OEPA. MVSD also must conduct testing at its plant.
Youngstown’s 2014 results, drawn from 50 samples, did not show any dangerous levels of lead or copper.
The 90th percentile level of lead was 5.9 parts per billion; for copper, it was 75. No individual readings were above actionable levels, either.
Results from five samples taken in 2015 at MVSD’s facility in Mineral Ridge showed the 90th percentile lead level at 2.35 ppb, and at 33 ppb for copper.
Community water systems are required to publish consumer confidence reports, which are available at epa.ohio.gov.