NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - The executive director of the Sewerage and Water Board responded to a FOX 8 investigation Tuesday. His comments came after a meeting before a City Council committee where a council member had questions about which homes the board tested for lead.
We uncovered the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board used the homes of its own employees to test for lead as part of federally required water safety monitoring. Those six employees included Executive Director Cedric Grant and five other staff members. We caught up with Grant and asked him about that.
Reporter: "Can you just tell us why you included some of the Sewerage and Water Board employee's homes in the testing?"
Grant: "The same thing I told you all the time, we're leading, why wouldn't we, we ask our customers to do something we wouldn't do ourselves?"
Reporter: "Are you concerned that that could be a conflict of interest?"
Grant: "No,I'm not. I'm concerned that you're questioning my integrity instead of showing my leadership."
We spoke with one of the nation's leading lead experts who told us while that kind of testing is not illegal, it is considered a conflict of interest that can lead to questionable results.
"That has been a loophole that has caused some problems in some cities. In some cities, as many as 50 percent of the homes being sampled were employees' homes, and it's really such an extraordinary conflict of interest, and also 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," said Virginia Tech lead expert Marc Edwards.
This isn't the first time Edwards has weighed in on a city's water testing practices. According to a February 2016 report from The Guardian, Chicago's water department also used its own employees' homes to test for lead. In their investigation, Edwards raised questions about a conflict of interest when it was revealed that nearly half of the city's samples came from the homes of department employees.
At the City Council committee meeting Tuesday, Councilwoman Susan Guidry questioned Grant about some of FOX 8's findings and how the utility selected its testing sites.
Guidry: "Six were high-level employees, including yourself, of the Sewerage and Water Board. Is your house a Tier 1 home?"
Grant: "We went to the community, I set up public meetings and asked people to participate. I could not do that in good conscience without leading and saying I would do it myself, but in order to actually qualify, we had to go out and determine whether my house and anybody else's house met that test in potential lead services, and it did. Again, my goal was not what was reported in the media, but my goal is what I do every day, is lead."
Under a federal law called The Lead and Copper Rule, utilities must test the highest-risk homes in their city for lead or what's called Tier 1 sampling sites. Homes that have lead service lines would qualify.
Guidry: "Were the other five employees, were they all Tier 1?
Grant: "Yes. Again, we dug first. You could put your name on the list, that doesn't necessarily mean you got sampled. We only sampled Tier 1."
The committee meeting follows a scathing report from the New Orleans Inspector General's Office. The IG said 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.
While addressing that report at the meeting Tuesday, Tulane toxicologist LuAnn White said in New Orleans, lead paint has been the primary source of childhood lead poisoning for many years.
"Over the years, water has not been a major contributor of childhood lead poisoning," said White. "What we don't want to do is to blow out of proportion issues with water, and then people forget about what are the major sources to children."
When we talked to Edwards, he pointed out that even a one-time exposure to lead in water can be dangerous for a child.
"We now recognize that some of these levels of lead are so high that it's equivalent to ingesting lead paint chips. 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 level," said Edwards.
The city said no federal or state regulators have questioned the Sewerage and Water Board's testing, and the lead results continue to be well under federal and state testing guidelines.
A city spokesman said federal law only required the Sewerage and Water Board to test 80 homes in 2016, but the utility said it tested 107.