Where are Akron’s lead pipes?

by Aja Hannah

Akron still uses lead pipes to transport water to about five percent of city water customers. But that number is shrinking — and even then, the EPA says it might be okay.

In celebration of World Water Day on March 22, it’s important to know where your water comes from. Akron water starts in the Upper Cuyahoga River Watershed and flows down to Lake Rockwell Reservoir, which supplies the Akron Water Plant with 35 million gallons of water per day. Constructed in 1915, the plant serves more than 275,000 residents in Summit County. Until the 1960s, most of those houses received water via lead pipes.

Akron Water Supply Bureau’s (AWSB) Water Distribution Division has an interactive map showing the remaining active lead pipe service lines in their city system. A service line is a pipe that runs a service, like water or gas, throughout the city to homes. The map was released in 2016 under a state law that required mapping of lead systems.

At first glance, the number of blue dots seems overwhelming. According to AWSB manager Jeff Bronowski, there are approximately 4,000 lead services left in Akron.

But that number is down from an estimated 50,000 in the 1960s. Last year, Akron city workers replaced 200 lead service lines in the water system. This year, they are scheduled to replace 280 more lead services. At that rate, it’ll take another 20 years to finish replacing all the lead service lines.

For comparison, Milwaukee estimates it’ll take decades to replace more than 74,500 lead service lines. Spokane took two years to replace 486 lines. In this regard, Akron is average. However, compared to other proactive cities, Akron falls behind. Lansing, Michigan took 12 years to do 12,000 lines, which is about four times as fast as Akron.

In Akron, the remaining lead pipes are kept from corroding — breaking down — by adding chemicals to water treatment. These chemicals go through the water system and find open spaces to bond to the pipes. This prevents the lead from entering the water because it stops the direct interaction between the lead pipe and the natural acidity or minerals found in the water.

The City of Akron maps the water system using a Geographic Information System, or GIS. “Very few cities have the comprehensive mapping capabilities to provide our customers a regularly updated map to determine if their property has a lead service line,” says Jeff.

In 2018, Akron had its lowest levels of lead in the water in more than 20 years. Lead levels measured 2.32 micrograms per liter (ug/l) at the 90th percentile, the lowest since testing began in 1992. The EPA’s limit for the 90th percentile is 15 ug/l. This means 90 percent of the lead tests in Akron have registered at 2.32 ug/l or less — well below the threshold of 15 ug/l.

The city water’s  has a full-service laboratory to confirm the treatment process, which follows all EPA requirements.

Those at risk are residents who live in the areas that are serviced by the lead pipes and those with homes built before 1950. Even if the lead service line was replaced, fixtures or piping in the home may still contain lead or corrosive brass. Akron focuses on their side or “cityside” connection of the line, which is the pipe that connects the water main in the street to the curb stop. The curb stop is usually located at the curb and is where private ownership of the pipe takes effect.

For school administrators or homeowners who are worried and want their water checked, Akron offers free lead testing. Contact Akron’s Water Distribution Division at 330-375-2420.

While progress remains steady, the two-decade time table seems frustratingly slow. Why doesn’t Akron do 1,000 pipes per year like Lansing or Madison? Why isn’t there more progress? Why aren’t people more upset about the lead pipes?

According to Heidi Griesmer, a spokesperson for the Ohio EPA, “A couple years ago, Ohio… made our rules more stringent than federal law so that we could get information to Ohioans as fast as possible if lead was found at unsafe levels in their water, which is not the case for Akron.”

Compared to other cities in the United States, Akron is doing well. The city hasn’t had threat levels of lead in years. AWSB is being proactive in their replacement of pipes. They replace city lead service lines when a customer has replaced the lead pipes in their home and on their property, and when there is an upcoming project such as resurfacing–so that they do not damage new pavement thereafter.

“We also look at removing multiple lead services at around the same time on the same street to be more cost effective. It is a priority to remove them as budget is available,” says Jeff.

Recent replacements have averaged $3,250 for each lead service line. Using that figure, replacing the remaining 4,000 lines would cost $13 million. In the proposed 2019 budget, Akron has set aside $250,000 to replace about 80 lead services using an outside contractor, and additional funds in the operating budget to replace another 120 lead services with City of Akron staff.

To be clear, Akron does not cover the cost to change pipes located on private property. While other cities have rebates and grants to cover–or partially cover–the cost of lead pipe replacement on private and residential property, Akron does not have a program at this time. Replacement falls onto the homeowners, and the national average cost to replace the piping in their house is about $2,000 per six feet, according to the home remodeling site Fixr.

The city has been replacing lead lines with EPA standard copper pipes. Copper is not without risk, but the EPA safety limit is much higher, at 1,300 parts per billion (ppb) versus lead levels of 15 ppb.

Even after the lead service lines themselves are replaced, there will still be the need for the anti-corrosion chemicals in the water because of lead joints (which were used until 1993), copper pipe with lead solder (used until 1986), and brass valves and fixtures (until 2014). These materials were all “best practices” in their time. The good news is, levels of these chemicals are all testing well below EPA guidelines.

When a service line with lead pipes is being worked on, Ohio EPA requires the city give residents on that line 45 days notice. If the line needs to be replaced, the city must provide filters. “We know that the process of replacing lead service lines can loosen the lead and we’ve provided guidance for that so that it is done in a safe way,” said Heidi.

Aja Hannah is a writer, traveler, and mama. She believes in the Oxford comma, cheap flights, and a daily dose of chocolate.

Photo: Shane Wynn via Akronstock.