Utilities did a good job getting the lead out

IN LIGHT OF THE news out of Flint, Mich., concern over lead in public drinking water has been heightened recently.

Here in Plymouth, that issue was of particular interest, since the city just four years ago entered into a consent order with the state Department of Natural Resources to take steps to reduce lead levels in the city’s drinking water.

But City Administrator/Utilities Manager Brian Yerges gave the City Council – and city residents – some reassurance last week when he reported that the city is back in compliance with safe levels of lead in drinking water.

That means that the city’s drinking water only has to be tested every three years for lead, rather than the annual testing required in the consent order.

Plymouth Utilities took a two-pronged approach to addressing the lead issue that helped bring the numbers back in good range in short order.

The process of replacing antiquated water service lines to individual properties, which the utilities had been pursing since 1995, was stepped up to help reduce the impact of lead leaching from such lines into drinking water.

The result is that more than 20 percent of those lead service lines have been replaced over the past two decades, with nearly half of the lines replaced as a result of the consent order five years ago.

The other step the utilities took was to adjust the level of chemical treatment of the drinking water supply that helps provide a barrier to lead leaching from service lines, reducing the amount of lead that finds it way out of taps in homes and businesses.

The latter could prove to be a double-edged sword, as the treatment relies in part on coating those lines with phosphorus derivatives, and Plymouth Utilities – like other public utilities – is under increasing pressure to reduce phosphorus levels in water being discharged into the Mullet River and other public bodies of water.

But the bottom line is that Plymouth Utilities has succeeded in getting the lead out of the drinking water – in a timely and safe fashion.

It needs to be remembered that the city’s failed test for lead content in 2011 represented the first failure in some two decades. And the city’s drinking water exceeded the Safe Water Drinking Act standards for lead in less than half the homes that were sampled.

Since the SWDA tests are taken at taps in individual homes, those numbers can be, and often are, skewed by lead-line laterals from the city water lines to taps and faucets in home. Being on private property, the city has no control or authority over those lines, but is bound by the impact they may have on water coming out of the tap or faucet.

Also important is the extremely low level of lead represented by the SWDA standards.

The SWDA standard for lead in drinking water is 16 parts per billion. That is the equivalent of 15 drops of water in a 13.2-gallon tank of gasoline (or any other liquid). Translated into time, it’s the equivalent of less than three minutes out of an entire year. In terms of population, it would be 105 people out of the entire population of the planet. Any way you define it, it’s an extremely small amount.

Plymouth’s one-time failure was for just slightly above that level, while the measurements that triggered Flint’s crisis showed lead levels as high as 13,200 parts per billion – nearly 900 times the SWDA standards.

No, Plymouth’s lead issues were never anywhere remotely similar to those in Flint, thankfully.

And Plymouth Utilities and city officials deserve great credit for their prompt and successful attention to our minor problem here. As Yerges told the council, Plymouth Utilities “has provided safe and secure electric and water for 115 years. I see no reason why that wouldn’t continue.”

We see no reason either.

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