New Orleans residents may have consumed lead in their drinking water as construction around their neighborhoods shook toxic metal loose from aging pipes under the ground.
The city’s water monitor, the Sewerage and Water Board, failed to alert citizens that such work could cause lead spikes in the tap water and tell them how to protect themselves, the New Orleans Office of Inspector General said in a report published on Wednesday.
The oversight is “an imminent risk to public health,” New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux told BuzzFeed News. “This is a very, very serious problem and we need leadership.”
This year, the city and the water board began the first phase of a historic $2 billion overhaul of New Orleans’ infrastructure, with plans to rip up and rebuild roadways and cut out aging lead pipes to fit in newer plastic conduits. That effort is expected to span at least the next least eight years, building on steady renovation since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The city is also undertaking a 135-mile FEMA-funded lead-pipe replacement effort, which is about 20% complete.
The new report is the first part of a survey of the SWB’s water-monitoring activities. The inspector general focused on the issue after the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, made news in 2015.
Like Flint and most American cities, a majority of New Orleans water pipes are made of lead. Chemicals added to treated water have coated those pipes with a protective layer that usually keeps lead from dissolving into the water.
But researchers have found that running heavy road rollers near pipes, or doing replacement work close by, shakes loose the protective coating — and some lead with it. Many studies, including a 2013 Environmental Protection Agency survey of sites in Chicago, have found high water-lead levels in pipes disturbed by construction or repair.
“We should not allow city governments to cut lead service pipes in front of people’s houses exposing them to a horrific levels of exposure,” Marc Edwards, a professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech who has worked in water-lead monitoring for decades, told BuzzFeed News. “If it’s not criminal it should be.”
The New Orleans water board did inform residents of water outages during construction or replacement work, but rarely warned about the risk for elevated lead exposure, OIG investigators found after reviewing public notices posted by the water board and interviews with its staff.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News in June, SWB Executive Director Cedric Grant confirmed that there was a policy to inform residents about construction taking place near their homes.
“We have a very extensive outreach program, on this Capital Program, that includes public meetings, social media, direct mailers — the entire gamut — door knockers, the works,” Grant said. He did not specify whether this included information about possible lead exposure.
When city workers replace old lead pipes because lead levels higher than EPA standards have been detected, they are required by law to tell residents to expect a rise in lead levels in their water, suggest ways they can protect themselves from exposure, and test the water after work is complete. But the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule, the regulation dictating the responsibilities of city water utilities, does not extend this requirement to cases in which the work is routine, or “voluntary.”
“They can come, create a massive spike of lead that goes into your house that poisons your family, and legally they don’t even have to tell you they did it,” Edwards said.
The spike in lead content near such sites “could go from massive amounts, basically pellets, down to moderate levels, to no lead,” Bruce Lanphear, a professor of environmental health at Simon Fraser University in Canada, told BuzzFeed News.
But there are ways to stay safe. The American Water Works Association recommends using filters on taps and running the water for an extended period to lower lead levels.
A failure to warn residents is “negligent, [and] a hazard to public health,” Lanphear said.
The city and water board appear to be taking steps to raise the profile of these risks.
The July 16 edition of the New Orleans Times-Picayune carried a front-page story in which city and SWB leaders promised multiple methods of outreach to residents during construction. (Per OIG protocols, the water utility was able to review the report for more than a month ahead of its public release.) In the Times-Picayune story, water board Executive Director Grant encouraged residents to request free water tests from the water board.
A city website listing planned work now warns that lead levels could rise when lead service lines are being replaced, and suggests using filters and “flushing” to decrease lead levels in drinking water. An earlier version of the website, posted in November 2016, did not contain this warning.
“Those are initial baby steps,” Inspector General Quatrevaux said. “The measure of effectiveness is how many citizens or what percentage of citizens know when construction is going to start on their street what percentage of citizens know what to do when they get that notice.”
The OIG report also noted that the water board did not have a record of the location and number of lead service lines in New Orleans. The agency confirmed this fact in its written response to the report. (The agency did not respond to numerous requests for this information from BuzzFeed News.)
“This is an unfortunate reality for many cities,” Edwards said. “It is alarming because it is normal.”
In an independent survey of water-lead levels in over 400 homes across New Orleans, Adrienne Katner, a Louisiana State University professor, said that she found the highest water-lead levels at homes that were left abandoned, where water could have stagnated in pipes, or homes where pipes were recently replaced. Four of five homes had lead levels above 15 parts per billion, and one was above 200 parts per billion — nearly 40 times the level of allowable lead in bottled water set by the Food and Drug Administration.
The new release is only the latest in a series of scathing reports that document administrative oversights at the agency.
Past reports from the OIG have described billing oversights, excess overtime pay, and the theft — by water board employees — of $500,000 worth of brass fittings that could have supplied 6,300 customers with water meters.
“It has been our assessment for some time that the Sewerage and Water Board was a troubled organization,” Quatrevaux said.
Nidhi Subbaraman is a Science Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Nidhi Subbaraman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.