Quick Hit: Buffalo Water has no answers on lead

News and analysis by Dan Telvock, Investigative Post's environmental reporter

The Buffalo Water Board’s one-page info sheet about its lead testing program fails to provide much substance, especially for a city that still has a serious lead poisoning problem involving its housing stock.

The water board’s online info sheet is in response to the catastrophe with Flint, Michigan’s water supply.

What the water board has yet to release is the number of service lines – the stretch of pipe of that connects houses with water mains running under streets – that contain lead. The topic has not surfaced in any of board meeting minutes for at least three years.

I can tell you Rochester has about 23,000 service lines that likely contain lead. Syracuse has 15,000. Replacing them all would collectively cost upwards of $150 million.

But in Buffalo, it is a big mystery.

When I called Buffalo Water on Monday to find out, I was told, “We don’t answer any of those questions here.” He ignored me when I asked why.

Instead, the water board’s info sheet states: “In aged water systems, lead may be present in service lines, plumbing fixtures, faucets and valves. In some systems, when drinking water has been in contact with plumbing or service lines containing lead, the lead may corrode (leach) into the water.”

Nothing earth shattering there.

Read this Investigative Post Quick Hit at The Public

The number and locations of service lines that contain lead is important because they are one of the biggest risk factors for lead-contaminated drinking water.

The info sheet states that, “Buffalo Water maintains a comprehensive lead monitoring program that routinely tests drinking water in homes throughout the City, in accordance with regulatory requirements.”

The program is about as comprehensive as the info sheet. But the testing program does comply with federal requirements, which isn’t saying much.

Consider that Buffalo tests drinking water in an average of 62 homes every three years. Not reported are the locations of tested homes. Those details are the subject of my three-week old Freedom of Information Law request with the water board.

My analysis of a decade’s worth of the city’s online annual water quality reports found that:

  • Of the 60 homes tested in 2014, two tested above the federal action level of 15 parts per billion for lead.
  • Of the 73 homes tested in 2011, three tested above the action level.
  • Of the 58 homes tested in 2008, none tested above the action level.
  • Of the 55 homes tested in 2005, one tested above the action level.

If more than 10 percent of all tap water samples exceed the action limit, then water systems by law must take additional steps to reduce the lead, such as using corrosion control treatment or replacing lead service lines owned by the water systems.

Buffalo Water already treats the water with a chemical that inhibits corrosion of the pipes and reduces the chances of lead leaching into tap water. Authorities in Flint did not use this chemical.

But, as you can see, lead still finds its way into city tap water. In fact, one home in 2011 tested at four times the federal limit. Another in 2014 tested at more than double the limit.

Keep in mind that the “action limit” is a regulatory term coined by the Environmental Protection Agency. Its enforceable action limit is not a health-based regulation.

The “maximum contaminant level goal,” also known as the “public health goal” for lead in drinking water is ZERO.

In other words, experts say there is no safe level of lead for human health.

Also worth noting is that water in city schools is not tested for lead. A spokeswoman for the school system said by email that “we retrofitted all of the schools’ plumbing fixtures in 2004.”

“The local consensus is that Buffalo children are affected by paint in our older housing stock,” the spokeswoman added.