NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - The New Orleans Inspector General says the Sewerage & Water Board should follow the example of other cities when it comes to reducing lead exposure in the city's drinking water.
He released a scathing report Wednesday that says residents may have been unknowingly exposed to elevated levels of lead.
"We have lead service lines, a lot of them. We don't know how many we have or where they're located," said New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux.
He has serious concerns about what happens to those lead service lines when there's construction going on. Quatrevaux says that work can disturb the water supply system, putting neighbors near those projects at risk.
"Long term, we need to replace all the lead pipes. There's no other solution and that's what everyone recognizes and it's what has to happen," said Quatrevaux.
The inspector general says the city and the Sewerage & Water Board did not alert residents about the risk of increased exposure to lead in the water when infrastructure projects are under construction or provide them with ways to reduce their risk.
One of the big problems he's concerned about is something called a partial lead service line replacement. That's when the utility replaces their side of the lead service line that carries water to a home from the main treatment plant, but not the homeowner's side of the line. That's left in place and can cause significant spikes in water lead levels, possibly for months.
"They do it as a matter of course whenever they're putting in a new water main or repairing damage. They do it automatically and that's part of the problem. In the past there was no record of where they did that repair work," said Quatrevaux.
The inspector general says the risk to public health is so serious that other cities have aggressive programs to remove both sides of the line.
"Some cities have gone to their state legislators and have argued this is such an important health problem that they need to be able to do that work because the simplest way to do it is to replace the entire line. That way you're not creating a hazard and you're removing the long-term hazard," said Quatrevaux.
In his report, the inspector general points out an example of a lead service line replacement program in Pennsylvania, where the York Water Company offers financial assistance to homeowners to remove their lead service lines.
But the Sewerage & Water Board has maintained it currently doesn't have the authority to remove lead service lines on private property - though they're considering ways to do that in the future.
"There is value in doing the full line replacements in people's homes okay and I've been in contact with all the cities doing that work, and I meet with those general managers regularly and try to explore how we might get the regulatory and legal authority to do what they're doing," said S&WB Executive Director, Cedric Grant.
In the meantime, Grant says the board did take steps to inform residents about potential lead exposure and will continue to do so.
"This is not something that's not known and quite honestly we've been managing it well within the standards that are required of us. And, quite honestly we have exceeded those standards in every instance," said Grant.
Grant also tells us he will hire an outreach coordinator to help inform the public about this issue.