FOX 8 Investigates: OIG criticizes S&WB over lead; utility fighting back
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The New Orleans inspector general issues a scathing report about the Sewerage and Water Board. The IG says residents may have been unknowingly exposed to elevated levels of lead in the drinking water.
It would be difficult for New Orleans residents to miss the many construction projects across the city. But what they may not know is that these projects could have a serious impact on drinking water.
The city has started a $2.4 billion infrastructure improvement project, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Separately, there are ongoing road projects.
In a report released Wednesday morning, the New Orleans inspector general's office says many of those projects involve repairing and replacing parts of the water supply system, including something called a "partial lead service line replacement". When that happens, the utility replaces its side of a lead service line - that's the pipe that carries the water from the main pipeline to your house - but not the portion of the LSL that's on private property. That lead line is left in place, unless the homeowner replaces it on their own.
According to the report, there is evidence that such partial LSL replacements can cause a significant increase in lead levels in water for months.
What's more: the inspector general says the city and the Sewerage and Water Board failed to alert residents to that risk, and did not comply with industry best practices by providing those neighbors with information on reducing the risk.
"Science develops over time and, you know in spurts," notes Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux. "And sometimes the knowledge is not there... Now is the time they have to do this. No one disputes the science anymore. There's no question about it. We have to protect ourselves or we're going to have lead in our bodies."
But, The Sewerage and Water Board says it took steps to inform residents about potential lead exposure and will continue to do so.
"We have been alerting people of, any time we do lead service line replacements whether maintenance or capital throughout our program, but again where we stand on this, we can always educate people more," said S&WB Executive Director, Cedric Grant. "There is always more that could be done, we're talking, we could talk every day and what I find is that somebody might be listening and somebody might not be listening so, we have to continue ways to figure out how to communicate."
The Sewerage and Water Board also says it does not have the authority to replace lead service lines on private property - they can only use their public funds for public use, they say. But, Grant says the agency is 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 Grant.
In a letter responding to the IG's report, S&WB officials say they have taken proactive steps to inform residents of the potential for increased lead exposure caused by those partial LSL replacements. And they say they welcome the inspector general's engagement on the issue. When it comes to the drinking water, the board points out that they are compliant with all state and federal laws.
But this new report from the OIG suggests those laws may not be adequate to protect residents from a serious health risk.
There's much more information about how to protect yourself from lead contamination in your water. The IG's office published a Frequently Asked Questions paper on its website to explain the threat, and how residents can address it:
You can also get federal guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- Go online to http://CDC.gov/lead
- Call 800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636) and select option 9
- If you use a telephone-text device (TTY), dial 888-232-6348.
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