Erie County
Water Authority
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ECWA Works to Protect Customers

November 8, 2016

By closely following rigorous testing programs that meet or exceed all federal and state safety requirements, the Erie County Water Authority (ECWA) assures its customers consume some of the safest tap water in the region. Claims to the contrary are simply not true, and here's why.

With an emphasis on safety, ECWA regularly implements important measures to help minimize the risk of its customers being exposed to the dangers of lead and other contaminants. As a result, the agency's water arrives at homes, businesses and schools safe to drink.

Recent tap water quality tests revealed some schools in Erie County with high lead levels in their internal water systems. While the exact cause still remains a mystery, the ECWA continues to assist its customers in discover what's wrong in their own systems.

"We know that schools are not occupied 24 hours a day, seven days a week as a residential home would be, so there can be a lot of stagnant water that could occur within any institute such as a school," ECWA Executive Engineer Russ Stoll said. "This stagnant water could be collecting contaminants from interior distribution lines."

If there are lead lines in the customer facility - like a school, for example - the water quality can be affected. However, the Water Authority is not responsible for water systems beyond the curb, meaning it will not fix problems in the water lines on your property and the pipes in your home or business.

ECWA water is tested 1,500 times per month at every stop along the system - at the source, in the treatment plant, in the pipes, and in customers' homes. The Authority's plants and pump stations are tested even more. Under this testing regime, qualified experts can discover and promptly resolve abnormalities in the water. As a result, the water ECWA customers drink from their tap is more pure than some brands of bottled water.

One ECWA water quality initiative is maintaining a tap water sampling program to prove compliance with standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) - tests of samples taken at the customer's tap, on their property.

"The federal government requires that we do a lead and copper test every three years," ECWA Chairman Earl Jann said. "Ever since this requirement has come into being, over the last two or so decades, the Water Authority has passed it with flying colors."

Prior to 2016, the Erie County Water Authority selected testing sample sites from a list of possible sites that originated in the 1990's, drawn from information on areas in the water system that had a history of lead service lines. That information was developed through discussions with the ECWA engineering department, meter service workers, line crews, municipal partners, and Erie County Health Department personnel.

The Authority continued to use this list as time went on and, as communities were added to the growing distribution system, added additional qualified sample sites. These were chosen either through information from the municipality involved or site information, often obtained from the county health officials.

The Authority selected possible testing sites randomly from that list. This is particularly difficult; not many customers are able to take the time to participate. As a result, ECWA sometimes includes employees or former employees on that list. They are often more eager to participate in the testing because they know the importance of the program to assure water quality.

Employee participation contributes to the integrity of the ECWA testing program and helps assure your water is safe to drink. This is standard practice in the industry, safe and informative - despite what some activists claim.

Customers in testing areas are typically reached via mail and or phone call, letting them know that the agency would soon conduct lead and copper sampling and asking them to participate. Follow-up calls are made to deliver the sample kit and instructions and then to arrange for pick-up of the samples. Results are mailed to each of the participants along with the required public health information and educational material on lead.

Prior to the agency's 2016 sampling event, the ECWA determined that testing performed in prior years was done using sample sites developed from an evaluation of the system from the early 1990's. Based upon new information on the Lead and Copper Rule provided by the Erie County Department of Health, ECWA's lead and copper monitoring plan was updated and approved by the department in August 2016.

As a result, a few sites tested in previous years were taken off the new sampling site list for not meeting Tier 1 criteria. These sites were not included in the EPA testing conducted in September 2016. This year's sample included 52 EPA approved Tier 1 testing sites, exceeding their requirement of 50. The results indicated that the 90th percentile value was 7.8 parts per billion (PPB). The EPA action level is anything above 15 PPB, placing ECWA well below the allowable threshold.

ECWA did, however, discover two sites that had lead values above 15 PPB. Letters were immediately sent to those customers informing them of the high test results and providing information on health effects and education on ways to minimize the level of lead in their water. Similar letters are currently being sent to other participants as required by EPA regulations.

Pinpointing the location of lead service lines within the ECWA system has never been an exact science. ECWA inherited a private public utility in 1949 and the materials records were often incomplete. The agency has since added to it smaller public systems which sometimes had inadequate records of system materials. For this reason, ECWA has worked diligently to create a central repository of infrastructure data. This is a daily duty of Authority personnel.

"When a service worker enters their home, if they are replacing a meter or servicing a meter and they notice a lead service line, they will tell a homeowner or a resident that there is a lead service line, and they will note it on their report for our data," ECWA Director of Water Quality Paul Whittam said.

In addition, ECWA relies on inventory records provided by the municipalities to supplement records of where the homeowners lead services lines are located. While the agency sometimes discovers legacy lead service lines in its system - and replaces them immediately - lead water lines are far more often discovered on the home or business owner's property. While those repairs are the responsibility of the customer, the Authority works with customers to help identify their problems.

Finally, to provide additional protection to customers from lead leaching into their drinking water, caustic soda is added to increase its pH level. This corrosion control process uses the calcium already in the water to form a coating along the pipe wall. This is possible due to ECWA's water source having a moderately high level of hardness and alkalinity.

By adding caustic soda, the risk of lead leaching is reduced. But ongoing testing, research and replacement projects are improving the ECWA water distribution system every week, all year long.

Because of this diligent program, ECWA provides some of the safest tap water in the region - and we stand by that statement 100 percent.