Politics & Government

Western Washington water providers react to Tacoma finding some high lead levels

Water providers across the Western Washington were scanning their systems for lead Thursday after Tacoma Water announced it had found high lead levels in service lines at four homes in the city’s Lincoln District.

Tacoma Water on Wednesday released the results of tests done to find short sections of lead pipe, known as goosenecks, that connect water mains to service lines outside of homes and can taint drinking water.

More on lead in the water

All samples tested at 98 parts per billion or higher — and one tested at nearly 400 ppb. The Environmental Protection Agency requires action be taken if lead levels exceed 15 ppb.

Water purveyors and health agencies across Western Washington reacted to the findings Thursday:

▪  In the coming days, Tacoma Public Utilities will come up with a plan to test a portion of the estimated 1,700 connections thought to have lead goosenecks. More than 30,000 such connectors have been removed in previous decades.

“We are going to continue to test, identify and remove lead goosenecks,” said Tacoma Water Deputy Water Superintendent Chris McMeen. “And we are going to look at our capacity to do it and how fast we can do it. It is a priority of our work to replace these service lines.”

TPU released a map of the city with areas that might contain lead goosenecks. The utility will seek to contact customers whose lines contain the fixture, spokeswoman Chris Gleason said.

In the meantime, customers wanting to know how their homes are connected to the water main can call 253-502-8207 or submit contact information to TPU at surveymonkey.com/r/tacomawater.

▪ Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland announced that the city had learned that none of the schools in the Tacoma School District are connected to systems with lead goosenecks.

▪ The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department opened its incident command center to address resident concerns about lead in water.

“It’s what we use when there is an elevated public health concern,” said Edie Jeffers, department communications and community relations manager.

The center was opened for purposes of planning and providing a “consistent message” to the public, she said.

“We want people to know that it’s much more likely that they should have a higher level of concern about the soil, if they live within the Tacoma Smelter Plume Area,” Jeffers said.

“Another concern is lead paint, especially in houses built before 1978. When we talk about lead in our area, those are the places where we see health concerns,” Jeffers said.

▪ Utilities in Seattle and Everett pledged more testing of homes serviced by galvanized lines.

Low levels of lead poisoning often do not have symptoms, but the even low amounts detected in children’s blood are associated with decreased intelligence, reading and learning disabilities, behavioral problems, delayed puberty and slow growth.

On Tacoma’s East Side, Crystle Rivera heard about the high rates of lead found in the water from a friend and went to the Safeway on South 38th Street on Thursday to buy a big bottle with her twin 1-month-old sons in tow.

Her house, just a couple of blocks from the store, is old — she thinks it dates to the 1920s. Homes built from around 1900 to just after World War II are most likely to have lead gooseneck connections, according to Tacoma Public Utilities.

Given that, Rivera was concerned enough to keep a jug of bottled water on hand.


“My mind immediately goes to Detroit,” Rivera said, speaking of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where extreme levels of lead were found in some homes. “I'd rather be safe than sorry.”

On the other hand, Son Boon Risley said she wasn’t concerned about lead being found in the water. She was watering the garden outside her South Yakima Avenue home that she believes was built in the 1930s.

“I’m not scared about it,” Risley said.

Her son, Marcus Risley, 20, was more concerned. He said having lead in the water was “worrying” and that they would have their water tested.

“She’s lived through worse conditions than this,” he said.

Lead contamination might be more than just a Tacoma problem. Water providers throughout the county serve tens of thousands of customers who are not served by Tacoma Water.

Among them are about 7,500 homes served by Parkland Light and Water. Water Superintendent Dale Budzinski said he knew of no lead goosenecks in the water system, but as much as 50 percent of the service lines are galvanized.

Since the 1980s, the small water utility has replaced service lines with polyethylene pipe.

Another 2,800 homes are served by the Sumner Water Department. Water field supervisor Fred Utanis said the utility occasionally sees lead goosenecks when replacing broken lines, but the system does have galvanized lines.

Lakewood Water District, which serves 17,000 homes, has replaced most lead gooseneck connections.

General manager Randy Black said the utility regularly replaces its oldest pipes and service lines. Black said he suspects very few lead goosenecks are left in the system.

“We’ve never had a sample result (for lead) over 4 parts per billion,” he said.

The city of Puyallup’s water system is among the oldest in Pierce County. Serving about 10,000 homes, it was formed in the early 1900s. Public Works Director Rob Andreotti said he was not aware of any lead gooseneck connectors in the system, but the utility does have galvanized lines.

Like most local utilities, the city’s lead testing is limited to homes the federal government considers the most at-risk for lead poisoning — those built between 1983 and 1986 — and does not include older homes that might have lead goosenecks.

Federal officials have long though that type of household plumbing was a prime contributor to lead in drinking water.

But following tests on four service lines in Tacoma, water providers across the region are now second-guessing that assumption.

Lead in the lines leading to the four Tacoma homes had levels of lead more than six times the federal action standard. Three of the service lines had a lead gooseneck connector.

The fourth, at an unoccupied house, tested for lead at 130 ppb, but water had sat in that fixture for two years, McMeen said.

He said lead goosenecks are a much higher concern than galvanized service lines. Still, water utilities in Seattle and Everett said they planned to test water for lead from galvanized lines.

“I don’t think it’s an overreaction,” McMeen said of Seattle and Everett’s efforts. “I think it’s an appropriate reaction.”

Carolyn Cox, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health’s office of drinking water, lauded Tacoma Water’s proactive approach to seeking lead in its system.

“Tacoma is one of those utilities that’s taking that seriously,” she said. “We are in touch with our larger utilities, because they do tend to be the older parts of the state and are more likely than others to have some of these lead goosenecks.”

Staff writers Kenny Ocker and C.R. Roberts contributed to this report.

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542, @KateReports

For more information

Two state-certified laboratories in Tacoma accept water samples for texting from the general public and are certified to test for lead:

▪ Spectra Analytical Inc., 2221 Ross Way, Tacoma, spectra-lab.com, 253-272-4850.

▪ Water Management Laboratories, 1515 80th St. E., Tacoma, 253-531-3121.

More information is available from Tacoma Public Utilities (bit.ly/TPULead) and Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department (tpchd.org/lead).

Anyone with questions about the effects of lead can call the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department’s incident command center at 253-798-6528 or go to tpchd.org/lead for more information.

Questions concerning pipes and such can be directed to the Tacoma Water center at 253-502-8207.

More information on state guidelines for testing for lead in children, including reducing exposure, is available at 1.usa.gov/1SnxJw1.

Related stories from Tacoma News Tribune