South Carolina’s health department did not monitor drinking water quality of some of the state’s public water systems that exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s action level for lead as closely as it should have, an investigation by The Greenville News has found.
At least 10 systems that have triggered the action level for lead between 2011 and 2015 should have been required to take semi-annual lead samples to ensure that measures being implemented to reduce lead in the drinking water were effective, but the state Department of Health and Environmental Control allowed those systems to remain on a three-year monitoring schedule.
“Under the rule, when there is an exceedance, they really should be moved to semi-annual monitoring,” David Baize, DHEC’s acting water chief, told The Greenville News. “That was not done in a timely manner in all cases and we’ve corrected that now.”
Moving to semi-annual testing is required under the EPA's Lead and Copper Rule and would have allowed regulators to see whether lead exceedances were a one-time anomaly or an ongoing issue that needs corrective action.
The department is making major changes to its drinking water oversight after a review of its program in response to the crisis in Flint, Michigan, where residents consumed lead-tainted drinking water for months from corroded pipes after the city switched its water supply to a source that did not provide corrosion control.
What transpired in Flint could not happen on the same scale in South Carolina because the state’s drinking water officials must review all water system’s source water changes, Baize said.
And South Carolina’s largest water providers, among them Greenville Water System, all add corrosion control to their water, which forms a protective seal on copper or galvanized pipes and prevents corrosion from leaching into water at customer’s taps, Baize said.
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But South Carolina has seen its share of issues among small and medium-sized, mostly rural, water systems, which make up all of the 28 water system’s that have exceeded the lead action level since 2011, Baize said.
Among those are schools, small towns or subdivisions and mobile home parks, where samples have shown the presence of lead, a neurotoxin that builds up in the body and can damage the brains of children, lower IQ, trigger learning disabilities and lead to long-term health effects in adults from high blood pressure and kidney damage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization.
There is no safe amount of exposure to lead, according to WHO, but the EPA set its action level at 15 parts per billion when the Lead and Copper Rule was written in 1991. It requires water systems to take action if more than 10 percent of homes tested for lead come back higher than 15 ppb.
In South Carolina, an exceedance for lead requires water systems to notify customers of the potential for lead in their water and actions they can take – like running water 30 seconds before using it to drink or cook – to limit exposure to lead. The state also requires systems to perform additional water tests to try to determine any causes for lead in the water and to perform a study of possible corrosion controls.
But it doesn’t require the systems to act on corrosion studies or replace service lines made of lead or galvanized steel or that have lead solders unless its tests continue to exceed the EPA action level.
So many of the systems begin a corrosion study and then abandon it after further tests come back below the action level, Baize said.
Many of those systems are very small, serving only a few dozen customers, usually in a rural area without access to a larger water system, said Myra Reece, DHEC director of environmental affairs.
Schools at risk
The systems tend to serve a lower income population or children, she said. Ten of the systems with exceedances are listed as mobile home parks. Three are small schools connected to their own water supplies.
At Blessed Hope Christian Academy in Rock Hill, the school principal sent a letter home to parents in 2014 when the samples showed the school exceeded the action level at 25 ppb. In 2015, it also exceeded the level at 19 ppb.
Now signs posted at the water fountains warn students not to drink the water and parents send students to school with water bottles each day, said Catherine York, the school’s secretary.
The school flushes its system once a week for five minutes but isn’t sure what’s causing the lead exceedances because its piping is made of PVC and its water comes from its own well.
“We’re just flushing our system and checking again because it could be a faucet or something,” York said.
The school has sent tests to DHEC again for analyzing but hasn’t received the results yet, she said.
At Edgemoor Headstart, the school has also used only bottled water since it tested at 55 ppb in 2014. It’s one of the locations that hadn’t been placed on semi-annual monitoring as required by the Lead and Copper Rule.
Another school, Cold Springs Mennonite School in Abbeville, had an exceedance in 2011 and was put on enhanced monitoring. It has remained below the action level, barely, since then. A representative from the school familiar with its drinking water wasn’t available this week.
After its review of lead data, DHEC said it plans to move all schools and daycares to annual monitoring due to the enhanced effects of lead in children.
It will also move all other water systems to at least a three-year monitoring schedule, though some who had never shown exceedances had been on a reduced nine-year schedule.
Those moves would take South Carolina beyond the requirements of the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule and would set the state ahead as the EPA is expected to tighten its lead rules by 2017, Reece said.
Help for rural water
Many of the smaller water systems don’t have the resources or technical expertise to deal with issues that crop up with lead or other contaminants, Baize said.
They don’t add corrosion control to their water supply because that would require them to staff a water manager, he said. Many don’t understand the factors that lead to lead in the water supply and aren’t financially able to replace service lines if needed, he said.
“These rural water systems are a problem and we want to find ways to help them,” Baize said.
Water officials are creating a new Office of Rural Water geared to find solutions for these systems, he said. The office will provide technical support to ensure the systems comply with the Lead and Copper Rule and will seek to find money – either through grants or low-interest loans – for systems that need to make changes, he said.
Many of the small systems with lead exceedances have aging infrastructure, Reece said.
“You may have an individual who wanted to make some extra income and purchased a mobile home park and didn’t realize the significance of his purchase in now being a public water system operator,” she said.
More often than not, lead seeps into water from old lead or galvanized steel service lines or pipes soldered with lead. Water companies own parts of these service lines that run from the water main to the water meter, while customers own the lines that run to the home’s plumbing system.
Buildings constructed through the early 1900s used lead service lines while galvanized pipes were generally used from the 1920s-1950s. But lead was used to solder galvanized or copper pipes until the late-1980s when it was banned, according to the American Water Works Association, which represents water systems.
An AMMA survey just released estimates there are 6.1 million lead service lines in the United States. That’s down from 10.2 million estimated in 1991. No one has a true count, however, because most utilities have never mapped out the service lines in their system or physically checked to see which service lines are made of lead.
The survey estimates that 44,000 lead service lines remain in South Carolina.
While 96 percent of the state’s 695 drinking water systems have not had any recent exceedances, DHEC plans to conduct a study along with the SC Rural Water Association, to find out what’s causing lead exceedances for the other 28 systems.
The study will look at water sources, chemical levels, geology, corrosion controls and the makeup of service lines, DHEC officials said.
Officials hope to come up with some answers to why some systems, particularly clusters near Rock Hill and Columbia, have continuing lead issues.
“For these to sort of continue popping in and out of the exceedance level year after year is not very satisfying,” Baize said. “Hopefully we can get some answers.”
DHEC has performed a study that shows no correlation between lead levels in blood samples and locations where exceedances have occurred, Reece said.
Anyone who is concerned about lead levels in their drinking water can call their water company to perform a sample.
The water companies pay a fee to DHEC, which operates a water sample lab and analyzes all of the state’s lead samples.
For anyone who lives in an older home, DHEC recommends running tap water for 30-45 seconds after a tap has been unused for several hours and to use water for cooking from the cold tap.
Baize said he would run the tap for 30 seconds every time.
“But I’m kind of in the habit of doing that anyway,” he said.
Water systems with lead exceedances by county, 2011-2015
* indicates system should have been on semi-annual testing schedule, but wasn't.
Pinehurst S/D: population served: 101. 22 ppb in 2014
Cold Springs School, population served: 41. 35 ppb in 2011
*Town of Allendale: population served: 4,070. 20 ppb in 2013
Oyster Park: population served: 40. 20 and 31 ppb in 2011, 23 ppb in 2014
*Edgemoor Headstart: population served: 100. 55 ppb in 2014
*Clarendon Country Water and Sewer Authority, Quail Ridge: population served: 240. 25 ppb in 2012
*Fishing Creek Property Owners Association: population served: 52. 21 ppb in 2012, 23 ppb in 2015.
*Dorchester County Water Service, Ashley Phosphate: population served: 19,343. 24 ppb in 2013.
AAA Utilities, Hilton Sound: population served: 50. 29 ppb in 2013, 28 ppb in 2015.
Carolina Water Service, Cedarwood: population served: 307. 27 ppb in 2015.
AAA Utilities, Ridge Point: population served: 85. 19 ppb in 2011, 18 ppb in 2013.
Triple Acres Mobile Home Park: population served: 38. 24 ppb in 2013.
Pine Ridge Mobile Home Park. population served: 100. 46 ppb in 2012, 16 ppb in 2015.
Sand Mountain Mobile Home Park: population served: 40. 16 ppb in 2013.
Town of Bowman: population served: 1,298. 38 ppb in 2014.
*Town of Branchville: population served: 1,293. 90 ppb in 2014.
*Lower Richland Mobile Home Park: population served: 31. 20 ppb in 2012.
*Percival Estates Mobile Home Park: population served: 18. 42 ppb in 2012.
Lakewood Mobile Home Park: population served: 147. 34 ppb in 2015.
Piney Lane Mobile Home Park: population served: 24. 16 ppb in 2015.
*Shiloh Water System: population served: 645. 47 ppb in 2013.
Supermetal Holdings USA: population served: N/A. 29 ppb in 2013, 71 ppb in 2015.
CM Steel Inc.: population served: 94. 96 ppb in 2015.
City of Tega Cay #2: population served: 4,850. 28 ppb in 2011.
Carolina Water Service, River Hills: population served: 8,860. 40 ppb in 2015.
Carolina Water Service, Foxwood: population served: 520. 57 ppb in 2015.
*Cedar Valley Mobile Home Park: population served: 290. 73 ppb in 2012.
Blessed Hope School: population served: 231. 25 ppb in 2014, 19 ppb in 2015