NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A FOX 8 investigation raises serious questions about how the Sewerage and Water Board has tested the safety of the city's drinking water, and whether their testing could have resulted in lower lead readings than what actually is occurring in New Orleans.
We all need water to survive. And most of us trust that it's safe. But a FOX 8 investigation has uncovered the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board used houses linked to its own employees to test for lead as part of federally required water safety monitoring.
"It's really frowned upon because, first off, it's a conflict of interest," says Marc Edwards, an environmental and water resources expert at Virginia Tech. "And there's a perception issue. More practically, it's very unlikely the employees are living in the worst-case homes in the city. It's possible, but you're really trying to be seeking out those worst-case homes and test those. That's the only way the law can work."
Under the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), the Environmental Protection Agency requires that utilities test the highest-risk homes in their service areas for lead.
"They're supposed to find the worst-case homes in the city and then sample those," Edwards says, "because it's this very few houses that you're testing to determine whether the safety level of an entire city."
Through a public records request last summer, FOX 8 obtained a list of 103 addresses that the Sewerage and Water Board said it tested in 2016, as part of the LCR. Using public property tax records, we cross-checked the addresses, and found at least six properties connected to six Sewerage and Water Board employees. They include:
- Executive Director Cedric Grant
- A deputy communications director
- A senior office support specialist
- A water purification operator
- A power dispatcher
- A senior services manager.
While not illegal, Edwards - one of the nation's leading experts on lead exposure - says that kind of testing not only raises a conflict of interest -- it can also lead to questionable results.
"That has been a loophole that has caused problems in some cities," Edwards tells us. "In some cities, as many as 50 percent of the homes being sampled were employee homes. And it's really such an extraordinary conflict of interest. Again, if they're not the worst-case homes in the city you're fooling yourself - you're getting a number, a reporting number for lead that's much lower than what is actually occurring in the worst-case homes, required by the law."
In an April interview about independent lead testing at a New Orleans resident's home, the executive director of the Sewerage and Water Board had this to say about water safety in the city: "I participated in the test and yes, I drink the water every day."
And late Tuesday, S&WB officials sent FOX 8 this brief statement, acknowledging the six employees took part in the 2016 LCR testing:
As we first told you last week, the New Orleans inspector general now is looking into how the Sewerage and Water Board selected its participants for water testing and how the agency determined whether those selected sites met federal criteria.
In that April interview, we asked Grant whether S&WB's testing procedure met those criteria.
"Yes, it did, and they were volunteers," he told us then. "We don't mandate that anybody take the test. We ask for volunteers. We went to public meetings and asked people if... would they be willing to participate in the test. We did it in older parts of the community where it's more likely that pre-1986 services are installed. And we followed the protocols to the letter."
After we found S&WB employees on the list, we asked for more details on how they picked participants for the 2016 testing. In a written statement, the board reiterated Grant's initial response. They also said each volunteer site was excavated to ensure there were lead service lines included in their testing process.
Neither this statement nor the one received late Tuesday address how and why the Sewerage and Water Board's own employees were selected for sampling.
Edwards says it's critically important that utilities do their testing the right way. "This is an important federal law," he tells us. "And lead is the best-known neurotoxin. And not only is any unnecessary lead exposure, you know, dangerous, but public health warnings... Parents take advice on the basis of the law and the safety status of the drinking water of the city, to protect themselves and their children. So, it doesn't get any more important than that."
The Sewerage and Water Board is already under fire after the scathing report from the New Orleans inspector general's office, released Wednesday.The OIG says residents may have been unknowingly exposed to elevated lead levels in their drinking water because of infrastructure projects under construction in the city. That work can disturb the water supply system and cause significant increases in water lead levels, possibly for months.
"We now recognize that some of these levels of lead are so high that it's equivalent to ingesting lead paint chips," Edwards warns. "No one would argue that ingesting lead paint chips is a chronic problem. A one-time exposure can elevate a child's blood lead to dangerous levels."
The OIG also says the city and the Sewerage and Water Board did not adequately alert New Orleans residents about the risk of increased exposure to lead in the water, and didn't comply with industry best practices by providing those residents with ways to reduce that risk.
"They should start following the letter of the law; they should start following the spirit of the law," Edwards says. "They should start implementing these best practices, as indicated by the IG report."
FOX 8 has requested back-up documentation for each of the volunteer sites that the Sewerage and Water Board says were excavated to ensure there were lead service lines.
In a response last week to the inspector general's recent report, the S&WB said that the OIG stated the quality of the utility's water is in compliance with all state and federal regulations.
But the IG's office says its report does not state that. In fact, it says its investigators are in the process of inspecting the utility's 2010, 2013, and 2016 water quality testing under the Lead and Copper Rule. The inspector general's office says it cannot provide information about that report until it is publicly released.
There's much more information about how to protect yourself from lead contamination in your water:
- You can find a Frequently Asked Questions paper from the inspector general's office here.
- Go to http://CDC.gov/lead for federal guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Call 800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636) and select option 9
- If you use a telephone-text device (TTY), dial 888-232-6348.