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Policymakers Wrestle with What to Do About Aging Infrastructure

Lead Service Lines
October 2017

Lead-contaminated water is a concerning issue that is rising to the surface for policymakers in many state and local governments. Legislation is being considered that would mandate the replacement of lead service lines (LSLs), including those that flow into apartment communities.

LSLs—the lead pipes that run from the drinking water main under the street to homes—feed into many structures and are potentially sources of lead in water, especially in pipes containing copper or 50-50 solder (50 percent tin and 50 percent lead) in the joints. When disturbed through aging or other activity, these pipes may release lead particles, without warning, and expose consumers to unsafe, or “actionable” levels.

Flint, Mich., was ground zero for such a crisis more than a year ago. It became the focus of politically charged headlines that alarmed a national audience during election season. Readings there were as high as 15 x the acceptable level. Even worse, in this situation, Flint officials either ignored the problem or doctored the data, dating back several years.

Those November elections having passed, broadcast news reports about unsafe water have greatly receded. However, studies released this year by Reuters suggest that previously undisclosed data obtained from 21 states pinpoint nearly 3,000 U.S. neighborhoods where poisoning rates among tested children were at least twice as high as in Flint. The poisoning hazards include deteriorating lead paint, tainted soil and contaminated water, according to Reuters. More than 1,100 of these neighborhoods had a rate of elevated blood-test results at least four times higher than in Flint, according to the report. At eight times the rate, Buffalo was among the markets where lead appeared most when testing children, with results in four ZIP codes measuring eight times the rate in 40 percent of the children tested.

Flint has already begun its clean-up. The state of Michigan agreed to pay $87 million so the city can replace up to 18,000 lead service lines to help it recover from a tainted-water crisis under a proposed agreement to resolve a lawsuit brought by a group of citizens and an environmental group in 2016.

Copper Concerns from Pre-80s

The possibility of lead in water measured at actionable levels (15 parts per billion—or ppb) can be in communities that use older fixtures (pre-1980s) such as faucets or showerheads that include copper (some fixtures manufactured in China more recently might include copper) or that have older water-line infrastructure that has experienced oxidation and corrosion in the pipes, which promotes the leaching process. In some cases, efforts to clean the pipes with chemical solutions can actually further cause an unhealthy supply because of resulting leaching brought on by the chemicals in the cleaner.

For apartment owners, assessing whether a community might be at risk can be simple and straightforward, but also costly and time-consuming. A key factor is the building’s age (anything built after 1986—in accordance with the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1986—is likely free and clear). Applying quick and inexpensive testing to these older properties can easily give them clean bills of health without much aggravation.

Given that approximately 55 percent of the nation’s apartment supply was built after 1986, communities are largely in compliance. Today, preventing lead from entering water flowing into an apartment community is easier because developers have greater control of the construction process when it comes to new development, says Zachary Maggart, President at Dynamic Redevelopment Solutions, Greensboro, N.C., who has 30 years’ apartment development executive experience for large, national firms such as Bell Partners and Berkshire Property Advisors.

“With new development, it is probably PVP pipes that were installed,” Maggart says. “There is no joint, no solder, no leaching. The exception would be if the developer is not careful as they secure plumbing fixtures. The fixtures must be certified as lead-free by the manufacturer. Fixtures with bronze components are still sold on the market, because the forging of bronze includes a small amount of lead.”

Testing the Property

When considering purchasing a property, an Environmental Site Assessment (ESA) Phase I survey is conducted at the point of the sale, typically by the buyer at the request of the lender.

“In light of the many lead-in-water and other regulatory changes occurring, coupled with CDC suggesting to address lead levels at 5ug/dl (micrograms) vs. the previous 10-15ug/dl, which will increase awareness, the best course of action appears to be a proactive one versus a reactive one,” says Lee Wasserman, President, LEW Corporation, and a national lead consulting expert. “The best defense is a good offense. It is also the most cost-effective approach in the long run because it allows property owners to address any such concerns based on their direction, not that of others.”

A Phase I ESA does not require lead testing. A quality Phase I ESA should suggest lead-in-water testing as well as sampling for other environmental concerns.

Costs to perform a Phase I can range from $1,500 for a small, simple site to $4,000 for a large and complicated one. Wasserman says a primary factor for this cost increase is the history of the site and its potential for environmental contamination. A basic structure built on plain, flat farmland is less likely to have complications compared to one that has been converted from, for example, a manufacturing facility that dealt with impure materials.

When testing for a redevelopment, typically 10 percent of random apartment homes at the community are tested. If any exceed 15 ppb, the buyer will ask the owner to retest. If positive results arise, a common cause is inactivity in the community’s water line, Maggart says.

“It’s easy to see how lead could have settled in pipes at properties where units have been sitting vacant for a month or so; lead can accumulate because of the inactivity,” Maggart says.

A first step, recommended by City officials, is to clear the water line of lead by running the water for five minutes, completely flushing the system. This is supposed to rid pipes of any lead that might have settled.

In the event that actionable levels of lead remain in an apartment home’s lines, the suspect unit’s water delivery systems again should be flushed and re-tested.

After this second test, if actionable levels still exist, testing the entire water delivery system should be conducted on each unit in the community. Testing every unit can cost is approximately $200 to $300 per unit.

“These costs generally are picked up by the seller,” Maggart says. “This step also includes the development of an action-plan to remedy any found conditions.”

Testing a full 300-unit property could take 10 days or more. If opting to do so, Maggart suggests that the owner or manager demonstrate hands-on involvement because they will want to keep the process moving to avoid losing valuable time needed to make the deal.

Once testing is complete and a spectrum of units has been identified, remedies from simple fixture replacement to full unit supply line (pipe) replacement is executed.

“If we found units to have actionable levels, we first would change out any existing brass fixtures, which cost a couple of hundred dollars per unit,” Maggart says.

Another option is to install charcoal filters in the water faucets, which serve as purifiers. However, one owner says this is not fool-proof solution because some residents will remove the filters and thus create another responsibility for the maintenance team to track.

Maggart says if the source of lead cannot be identified, “we would then retest the entire community. If we felt the source was the pipes, we would replace all the pipes in the building, which costs $2,000 to $2,500 per unit.”

Daniel Robles, PE, Founder, CoEngineers, Edmonds, Wash., says, in addition to copper, many factors can contribute to the degradation of water quality, such as water chemistry, temperature and flow rates, all acting on various components.

“Any change to a system can impact the flow characteristics inside the pipe,” Robles says. “Unfortunately, if the pipes are replaced ‘in-kind,’ there may not be a requirement to have an engineer review the installation, whereas a significant change in say the routing of a plumbing system, would trigger a permit that requires engineering review. A contractor will generally try to not pull engineering permits. If lead is an issue, always consult a licensed engineer.”

Maggart says another full round of testing should occur after replacing the pipes.

“If the problem persists, then we figured it must be coming from the city’s pipes,” Maggart says. “One way around this for the owner would be to install and maintain your own filtration plant in the community. But that gets expensive. Ultimately, because we can’t fix the city’s pipes, if these pipes proved to be the source, then we would not buy the property.”

Maggart says he could count on one hand how many times he walked away from a property.

Action Plans

Tests are conducted while residents are in their homes and any necessary repairs are staged so that there is as little inconvenience as possible, Maggart says.

“Apartment owners are obligated to disclose to the residents if any units in the apartment have actionable levels of lead,” Maggart says. “If there are, we must present an action plan on how to treat them.”

Residents are not required to leave their apartment homes during the testing, although some may opt to, according to Maggart. Owners may choose to cover those costs, but are not required to.

Said one owner who has dealt with multiple rounds of testing at one of his communities, “Fifteen years ago, we were required to test for lead. It’s not required today. In one case, we found it in high levels in modular apartments built around 1975. Having this happen today is odd.”

That owner says 50-50 solder joints used in the service lines were, in part, the reason to blame. Since the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1986, the use of lead-containing solders in potable water systems has effectively been banned nationwide. The major impact of the Act has been on 50-50 solder, until then the most widely used solder for drinking water systems.

Nearly 50 percent of today’s apartment stock was built before 1980, according to Costar. Many of these communities have since been renovated, however no statistics are available about how many have retained their original piping.

Lead-based solders have been replaced by tin-antimony and tin-silver solders. The main differences between these solders and 50-50 are that they are stronger and require somewhat higher working temperatures. Many plumbers in the United States have used them in copper plumbing systems for decades.

Should an apartment owner want to randomly test apartment homes, inexpensive test kits often are available at the local utility company. Bill Hogg, Senior Vice President at Intertek-Professional Service Industries, who will perform assessments, says the cost for an individual to have a water sample analyzed is between $20 and $40. Pace Laboratories, ECS Labs, TestAmerica are among the firms that perform the lab work.

In areas that might receive negative publicity from the media about their water supply, such as in Flint (Buffalo and Pittsburgh also have received great scrutiny), it’s not unusual for homeowners or residents to inquire about self-testing. In Fairfax County, Va., for example, a phone call to the utility was answered with friendly customer service, information and advice, including an explanation on how water can be tested. Kits can be delivered to the property or picked up at the utility’s headquarters. Fairfax Water, in this case, said it found no unsafe levels or lead in its water, as reported two years prior in its annual report (the most current information available).

Sorry. Can’t Help You.

Blame a utility company for having actionable levels of lead in their water and most will not cooperate with the process, many apartment owners say.

“They are so protective,” says one owner. “And they aren’t always the most knowledgeable about even their own utility—they can’t even help you sort out your bills. As an owner, you have to be cautious about believing what they tell you.”

Mike Beirne, Kamson Corporation, a Northeast-based apartment owner and manager, calls lead-water contamination “a complicated subject.”

“We have some properties that are at the age where their plumbing probably had some lead involved during the construction process, and lenders are starting to show a concern with this in older urban areas,” Beirne says.

“From an operational standpoint, if there is a thought that water is somehow contaminated, it is a bit of a conundrum. Obviously we first focus on our property, however the larger issue is the town’s or municipality’s water sources. You can ask such authorities if there is a possible issue, but the minute you bring it up, they throw up defenses because they are afraid of litigation. They are required to have certain information public, but they are very good at answering the questions that they want to answer and avoiding what they don’t want to answer.”

“If you feel you have a serious water-source problem, you may need to go into a protracted legal battle to get accurate answers. Most times, these authorities insist they don’t have any problems and they tell you it’s got to be ‘your’ problem.”

Beirne says he challenged a water authority on a contamination problem that didn’t end up being lead, “but it ended up in a three-year negotiation, and in the interim, the water authority quietly fixed its issue without ever admitting they had a problem. It did cost me quite a bit in legal fees.”

Maggart says the City cannot require that a property test its water for lead. “There are private property laws in place that prevent that,” he says. “But, if lead is detected, you must test the property and then show proof that it was cleaned up.”

Proof comes in the form of a “no further action” letter. That letter does not expire.

“If an owner goes through this process, when they are done, they can pat themselves on the back about now running a ‘clean’ property,” Maggart says. “Owners can even consider using this certification as a marketing pitch, especially in markets where buildings were found to have actionable amounts of lead.

“Apartment owners who have not gone through this process should not freak out,” Maggart says. “In the end, it’s not like this is going to cost millions of dollars per community.”

But if and when that property changes hands, the letter of proof becomes void and the testing and verification process may start all over.

Paul R. Bergeron III, Director of Publications for NAA can be reached through email or 709-797-0606