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Unsafe levels of lead in water not a threat in ABQ, officials say

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

City-county water managers say the kind of lead-laced drinking water crisis facing Flint, Mich., is not a threat to water utility customers here.

“Albuquerque’s water system is a relatively young system,” said John Stomp, chief operating officer for the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority. “Lead was not highly used in construction when Albuquerque was developing, except in some (gooseneck) fittings. In the ’90s, we went through a process to find where these lead fittings might be located. We went out to do some digging to get rid of what lead fittings we found.”

Mark Kelly, compliance division manager for the water authority, said that in federally mandated testing, Albuquerque’s water supply has not approached unsafe levels of lead.

The crisis in Flint started in 2014 after that city changed its water source from water treated by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the Flint River. Flint officials did not take measures to avoid the corrosive effects that might be caused by the river water.

“The new water reacted with the coating that protects the (Flint) pipes, and (the coating) was scoured off,” Kelly said.

As a result, lead from the aging Flint pipes leached into the water supply, exposing thousands of consumers to a range of health problems.

Kelly and Stomp said that, since 2009, when Albuquerque started using Rio Grande water to supplement dwindling groundwater resources, a corrosion inhibitor, orthophosphate, has been used at the surface-water treatment plant to prevent corrosion.

David Morris, public affairs manager for the water authority, said that in the 1990s, in anticipation of new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules governing lead and copper content, the University of New Mexico Engineering Research Institute was hired to explore lead use in the Albuquerque water system.

Morris said that after inspections, reviews of engineering drawings and interviews with senior water system personnel, the UNM team determined that lead-based pipe materials were not used for utility-owned water mains. The team did, however, discover that lead fittings had been used to connect water mains and service lines in some areas.

In cases where the locations of these fitting were known, they were removed, Morris said. He said it is an ongoing water utility policy to remove and replace any utility-owned lead component as it is discovered during construction or repair work.

Stomp, who has worked with the Albuquerque water system for 20 years, said it has been a long time since anything like that has been found.

“Since I’ve been here, I honestly can’t remember anyone talking about finding any,” he said.

Even though there are no known lead components in the water system, there is the possibility lead pipes have been used at some residences to connect home plumbing to water meters. In such cases, people using the water in those residences could be vulnerable to unsafe levels of lead. That’s why testing is necessary.

Federal standards set a lead content of 0.015 micrograms per liter as the point at which action must be taken to correct a potentially unsafe situation. Kelly said that during the most recent round of sampling for the Albuquerque Bernalillo County water system, conducted last year, the result was 0.002 micrograms per liter, well below the action level.

Kelly said testing is done every three years in 50 homes built between 1982 and 1987, the last years when lead solder was used.

“Lead-based solder was banned in 1987, so the highest concentrations of lead would be in those places that used it,” Kelly said. “It’s getting harder to find these places because people do remodeling.”

Just last week, Jackson, Miss., reported that the water in 13 residences in the southwest part of that city had tested positive for lead concentrations above the recommended level. Jackson officials believe the high readings can be attributed to internal plumbing in those homes.

In 2006, an EPA guideline reducing the acceptable levels of arsenic in drinking water went into effect, forcing the local water authority to shut down 40 groundwater wells by 2009. That reduced Albuquerque’s drinking water production by 40 percent and made it necessary to initiate the San Juan-Chama Drinking Water Project to take surface water from the Rio Grande.

Stomp said drawing surface water into the system was not something the water authority took lightly. Even when lead is not a factor, the corrosive effects of river water can cause serious problems.

Officials here were well aware that Tucson suffered disastrous consequences in the early 1990s when that city supplemented its groundwater supply with Central Arizona Project water from the Colorado River. The corrosive Colorado River water caused Tucson pipes to burst and turned drinking water a nasty brown color.

Stomp said the water authority invited people who had been involved in the Tucson debacle to come to Albuquerque in 2003 or 2004 and talk about the lessons they had learned from their mistakes.

“We followed their recommendations,” he said. “We used a corrosive inhibitor and we slowly integrated the surface water into the drinking water process.”