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How Bad is Providence Water Supply’s Lead Problem?

Tuesday, July 11, 2017


Is Providence's lead water problem a big deal -- or not?

Providence Water alerted residents last month that "elevated levels of lead in the drinking water in some area homes and businesses" had been found once again.

Now, at least one watchdog is warning of the parallels to Flint, Michigan -- and Providence Water is refuting a number of the concerns raised. 

INTERACTIVE MAP: Does Your Property Have Lead Pipes?

On July 3, former Providence Board of Licenses Chair Johanna Harris wrote on her blog, "Lead in Our Tap Water: Providence RI versus Flint MI" -- noting that last year, Providence had been named one of the largest U.S. water systems to violate lead standards.  Harris wrote:

I decided to ask Providence Water for its database of lead water measurements and see for myself where the city stands. Parts of Providence, I find, have indeed had as much lead in their tap water as Flint, especially the area around Ward 2 on Providence’s East Side.

The lead statistics reported by Providence Water obscure the seriousness of the problem by combining Providence with neighboring Cranston, Johnston and North Providence. While there is some evidence of an improvement during the past 2–3 years, Providence still appears to be far from solving a serious public health problem.

Harris concluded her post by questioning the efforts by Providence Water -- and the state -- to address the lead issue.

"Back in 2012, the RI Department of Health and the EPA entered into a consent agreement with the Providence Water Supply Board that gave the Board extra time to clean up its lead problem.  As part of the agreement, the Board had to convene a national panel of experts," wrote Harris. 

"According to the Board’s most recent audited financial statement for fiscal 2016, further extensions were granted in succeeding years," continued Harris. "A page on its website entitled 'Where Does Providence Stand?' states, 'Providence Water is currently negotiating a Consent Agreement with the RI Department of Health'.”

Providence Water Responds

"Providence Water's executive team is reviewing the blog post. It seems the author does not have a full understanding of the data we have provided, " said Dyana Koelsch with DK Communications, on behalf of Providence Water. "The conclusions she has drawn are not representative of the data, Providence Water's findings or its ongoing activities regarding lead."

Koelsch noted that the drinking water that leaves the treatment plant in Scituate and journeys through the Providence Water distribution system of 1,000 miles of mains "has no detectable levels of lead."

Johanna Harris

"However, in our community some of the service pipes and plumbing fixtures like faucets, valves, brass pipes and pipe solder can contain lead. Providence Water has found elevated levels of lead in drinking water in some area homes and buildings," said Koelsch. "When standing water is exposed to lead pipes or fixtures and solder for more than a few hours, trace amounts of lead can leach into the standing water. This means the first water drawn from the tap in the morning, or later in the afternoon after returning home from work or school, can contain higher levels of lead."

"Over the last 10 years, Providence Water has spent over $45 million replacing lead services. Today, approximately one out of every six Providence Water customer homes remain connected to the water mains in the street with services made of lead," added Koelsch.

Comparisons to Flint

Koelsch addressed Harris' comparisons to Flint.

"There are many differences between what happened in Flint and the situation in Providence," said Koelsch. "Providence Water has an active program to help mitigate the lead levels, including:

* Corrosion control (which I believe Flint did not use)
* A long standing expert panel that includes Dr. Marc Edwards, who has said Providence should be a model for utilities that are addressing lead issues in their systems (incidentally, Dr. Edwards is national expert who has been engaged by Flint to help with its problem)
* Compliance testing above and beyond the required 100 samples 
* Making as much information available in a transparent manner - (Including the interactive map on our website that shows where there may be service lines with lead)
* $10 lead testing kits 
* Information and education for residents on water utilization that can safeguard against lead ( flush lines, run water until cold).

"One final note," added Koelsch. "The most prevalent exposure in Rhode Island comes from lead-based paint and paint dust found in residences built before 1978. We work closely with the Department of Health, and others to address the issue that, no matter what the origin, is important to all of us."


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