Federal Water Tap, September 24: Lead Service Line Data Is Scarce, Says GAO

The Rundown

The GAO investigates what is known about the number of lead pipes into homes — and finds no reliable national number. The EPA announces grants to test drinking water in schools and day cares for lead. Federal agencies compile data and images on Hurricane Florence while the EPA assesses damage at Superfund sites. FERC denies a request that it oversee the entire licensing of a 140-mile pipeline in Utah from Lake Powell. And lastly, a Senate committee holds a hearing to discuss the federal role in PFAS response.

“The total number of lead service lines is unknown and while national, state, and local estimates exist, approaches used to count lead service lines vary. A 2016 American Water Works Association study estimated that nationally there were 6.1 million lead service lines, but the study has significant sampling limitations and, as a result, likely does not accurately reflect the total number of lead service lines nationwide.” — Government Accountability Office report on lead service lines.

By the Numbers

62: Superfund sites in Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina assessed after Hurricane Florence. Preliminary surveys found no serious damage. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

$392 million: Loan and grant funding announced for 120 rural water and wastewater projects. Seventy percent of funds are loans. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)

News Briefs

EPA Announces Lead Testing Grants for Drinking Water
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will allocate $20 million to states to test drinking water at schools and day care facilities for lead. The program will provide $1.2 million to tribal schools.

States that want to participate in the program must submit letters of interest by January 11, 2019.

EPA Inspector General Announces Retirement
Arthur Elkins Jr., the EPA inspector general, will retire on October 12. Appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, the inspector general is an independent office within the EPA that investigates improper behavior and agency performance.

Lake Powell Pipeline Review
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission denied a request from the state of Utah and a local water district to have the commission oversee the much of the regulatory review of a proposed 140-mile pipeline from Lake Powell.

The Utah Water Board and the Washington County Water Conservancy District are seeking to have the majority of the pipeline licensed as a hydropower project because, for 89 miles the pipeline runs downhill and will be used to generate electricity. FERC has authority to license hydropower facilities and infrastructure related to their operation.

FERC denied the petition, which means that Department of Interior agencies will also be involved in the environmental review and issue authorizations for the pipeline route that crosses their jurisdiction. The result is likely a more protracted review for a proceeding that has already stretched a decade.

FERC surmised that state and local authorities sought an expansive license because of the eminent domain authority that comes with it.

“By not asserting jurisdiction over these large water delivery projects, the Commission leaves to other state and federal authorities decisions regarding the purpose of and need for the water delivery project, the preferred route for the pipeline, and its cost and financial feasibility; matters that are far removed from the limited purpose of the hydroelectric power developments to be located in and along the pipeline,” the ruling states.

Studies and Reports

GAO Investigates Lead Service Lines
The number of lead pipes delivering drinking water to U.S. homes is unknown, according to a Government Accountability Office audit of academic studies, state assessments, and utility data.

The EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule requires utilities to inventory lead lines, but EPA officials interviewed by the GAO said that this does not mean a comprehensive census of lead pipe locations. Only if a utility is required to replace its lead lines is it required to complete a census, and very few of the 68,000 utilities regulated by the rule have been required to do so.

A 2016 study from the American Water Works Association, the most recent study to date, estimated 6.1 million lead service lines based on a survey of 978 water systems. But the GAO took issue with the calculation methods, saying they were not statistically representative and utility responses were based on “best guesses.”

The EPA asked states in 2016 to work to publicize lead service line data. The GAO looked at the websites of the 100 largest U.S. water utilities for publicly available data on lead service lines. It found information on 12 websites.

Some utilities had excellent data: Boston, for one, has an online interactive map of properties.

Hurricane Florence Data and Images
The U.S. Geological Survey produced an animated infographic that shows how rivers responded to the inundation brought by the storm.

The USGS also developed a data dashboard for the emergency.

NOAA, meanwhile, compiled aerial images of North Carolina and South Carolina taken each day since September 15.

CRS Reports Publicly Available
The Congressional Research Service, as required by a law passed earlier this year, is making publicly available the reports it produces for members of Congress.

The first batch of reports posted is 628 reports dating to January of this year. More will be posted later.

The site also has a handy table that shows the status of appropriations bills.

On the Radar

PFAS Senate Hearing
On September 26, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs will discuss the federal role in PFAS response.

Two of the witnesses on the first panel — Peter Grevatt, director of the EPA Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, and Maureen Sullivan, who is overseeing the Defense Department’s PFAS response — testified at a House committee hearing earlier this month on the same topic.

A second panel at the hearing will feature representatives from two communities — Oscoda, Michigan, and Pease, New Hampshire — dealing with PFAS contamination of groundwater.

In context: Fear and Fury in Michigan Town Where Air Force Contaminated Water

Legionella Meeting
On October 22, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine holds another meeting in its project to evaluate the risk of legionella bacteria in building water systems. It is the expert committee’s fourth meeting.

Register for the in-person meeting in Washington, D.C., or for the online stream. Both are free.

Federal Water Tap is a weekly digest spotting trends in U.S. government water policy. To get more water news, follow Circle of Blue on Twitter and sign up for our newsletter.

Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton

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