A June 4 article incorrectly said that the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority added chloramine, a combination of chlorine and ammonia, to treat the drinking water four years ago. Also, a May 24 article incorrectly said that WASA planned to add orthophosphate to the water to solve recent lead leaching problems. The Washington Aqueduct, run by the Army Corps of Engineers, was responsible for both water treatments. (Published 6/8/04)
Water meters that the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority installed over the past two years at every residence in the city are considered "lead free" under federal standards but likely leach lead into drinking water, several independent experts said.
WASA spent $36 million in 2002 and 2003 to replace about 110,000 meters at private residences and 20,000 at commercial locations in an effort to get more-accurate readings on water usage and improve customer billing. The automated meters have increased revenue for the agency because the old ones were often defective.
But with drinking water in thousands of D.C. homes having lead levels above the federal limit, the new meters, which contain about 5 to 7 percent lead, are being examined more closely by WASA officials, federal regulators and industry analysts.
Water utilities in California and other jurisdictions, concerned about lead, have begun using a new kind of meter that many believe is safer than that used by WASA.
"Unfortunately, D.C. did a major change-out right before the issue came out and [lower-lead meters] were available," said Richard Maas, a University of North Carolina-Asheville professor whose studies on such meters show that they can leach lead.
D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) said WASA may have been too eager to replace water meters in order to increase revenue and did not take proper precautions.
"My hope is that WASA quickly adopts a zero-tolerance policy for lead in the water," Fenty said. "WASA wanted the new meters to increase revenue, and it has. But lead in the water seems to be a new concept to WASA."
If water meters are found conclusively to leach lead, that could have significant ramifications locally and across the nation.
WASA's board of directors is considering replacing all 23,000 of the city's known lead service lines over the next six years, at a cost of at least $350 million. But now some are questioning whether that effort and expense will solve the lead problem if meters also contribute to contamination.
"If money is no object, we'd do everything," WASA board Chairman Glenn S. Gerstell said. "But if you have only a certain amount of money, do you replace lead lines and leave the meters? I don't know that we have the answer to that."
Erik Olson, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said WASA should not immediately replace all the meters with newer ones that have less lead because of the substantial costs and disruption. Lead services lines, he and other analysts agreed, pose a much bigger threat to the water supply.
But Olson added that WASA and all other utilities should create new policies to "make sure they are installing only truly lead-free" meters.
Congress is considering legislation to do just that. Both the Senate and House are debating bills aimed at revamping federal regulations governing lead in drinking water, including requiring water systems to use newly developed meters and plumbing fixtures that have only tiny traces of lead.
At a hearing on the matter last week before the House Government Reform Committee, Katherine Funk, a Capitol Hill mother of a 5-month-old girl, urged passage of the legislation.
"Lead-free doesn't really mean lead-free," she told committee members.
WASA General Manager Jerry N. Johnson has stressed that agency engineers believe the lead contamination problem in the District was probably triggered when the chemical chloramine -- a combination of chlorine and ammonia -- was added to the water four years ago, making the city's water more corrosive.
Officials have said the problem is largely concentrated in houses with lead service lines. Results of recent tests by a team of WASA and independent scientists have supported this analysis. WASA officials plan to add another chemical, zinc orthophosphate, to the water beginning June 1 that they said will coat the pipes and stem the leaching.
Still, WASA has found that some homes without lead service lines also have excessive lead levels. That could be caused by leaching from lead solder, plumbing fixtures or water meters.
"We've done a number of tests . . . but have not seen any final data," said Michael Marcotte, WASA's chief engineer.
WASA's meters, manufactured by the company ABB, are made of a material known as "waterworks bronze," which is classified as lead free by the federal government. The federal standard, written in 1986, allows meters to contain up to 8 percent lead because it makes the metal more malleable and therefore easier and less expensive to produce. At the time, manufacturers argued that it would be difficult to make durable, affordable meters without using some lead.
Some tests have shown that the meters probably leach lead when processing corrosive water, industry analysts said.
Gregory Korshin, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington, said that lead does not dissolve when used to manufacture a water meter. Rather, it forms small scales on the final product.
"The lead exists as an entity by itself," Korshin said.
Maas said the amount of lead that leaches from a water meter is far less than what comes off a lead service line. Tests have shown that water taken from bronze meters contains up to 100 parts per billion of lead, Maas said. That would then be reduced to, at most, about 20 to 25 ppb by the time the water reached the tap, he added. Still, that exceeds the Environmental Protection Agency's federal safety limit of 15 ppb.
Maas added that the disturbance caused by work crews that installed the meters for WASA might have dislodged particulates from lead service pipes and helped contribute to the excessive levels of lead found in the water supply of thousands of city homes.
Concern over lead in water meters and other products sparked a lawsuit in California a few years ago. State courts mandated that utilities switch to meters made of a relatively new material called "enviro brass," meaning they contain no added lead concentration and have a natural content of less than 0.25 percent.
Mark Champagne, a vice president of AMCO, which bought ABB's water metering division, said enviro brass meters were on the market several years ago when WASA was making its decision to purchase water meters. But, he noted, they were not common, and most jurisdictions were not even considering them.
Pankaj Parekh, director of water quality compliance for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, said his agency has been replacing 40,000 meters a year with the enviro brass variety.
"Most utilities, if they can afford it, should try to do something like this," he said.
In fact, others have, including the one in Bangor, Maine. "If we can reduce the amount of lead in the system, why not?" said Kathy Moriarty, Bangor's water quality manager.
Still, not everyone is convinced that the enviro brass meters are a major improvement. Steve Reiber, an industry consultant based in Bellevue, Wash., said they are untested.
"If these meters fail after five or 10 years, when the old ones lasted 30 years, that's a serious issue," he said. "I don't think leaded brass is a big, big issue. It's not to say it's insignificant, but it does not begin to approach the magnitude related to lead service lines. It's a bit player in the overall lead exposure world."
Rhodes Trussell, a Pasadena, Calif.-based consultant, agreed that optimizing water chemistry to control corrosion and removing lead service pipes should be the priorities.
But, he added, "you can't have lead in the water if the water is not exposed to lead. If we have alternatives [to meters with lead], then we should explore those."