The Providence Water headquarters in Lower South Providence is wedged between Mashapaug Pond—contaminated, still, from toxic waste emitted by the old Gorham silver spoon factory—and a set of old train tracks. It’s a low building topped with an assemblage of solar panels and the “PW” logo emblazoned on the facade. Inside the front set of doors is a customer service window through which you can spot dozens of phone operators taking calls about utility bills, water quality, and, maybe, lead.
Through the back doors are the administrative and engineering offices. There is a pair of turnstile security gates at this entrance, but if you can get a pass and are buzzed through, there is a small museum that documents the history of the utility. They have models of old wooden pipes that once ran under the city, quaint compared to the huge cast-iron mains and lead services that now lie beneath the streets of Providence.
In an austere conference room off the museum, the College Hill Independent met with a team of five Providence Water engineers to learn more about how they’re trying to manage a water system whose problems are sprawling. The Providence Water system has 13,800 homes serviced by a lead pipe and, from 2010 to 2017, failed to meet EPA standards in the 90th percentile of homes tested for lead in the water seven out of those eight years.
Lead has been a problem in Providence for decades. The 1970s saw efforts to educate the public and reduce blood lead levels, especially in children. An aging housing stock and years of leaded gasoline had primed Providence to be one of the leading lead hotspots in the country. Government and community intervention in lead paint and dust reduction has been successful, reducing childhood lead levels in Providence ten-fold, but it’s only since 2010 that lead in the Providence water system became a more pressing concern.
“It’s kind of ironic,” Laura Brion, the executive director of the Childhood Lead Action Project, told the Indy. “Local concerns about lead in drinking water have paled in comparison to concerns regarding lead in paint and soil. In part, this is justified because of how big the threat of lead and paint in soil is for children locally, but if we didn’t have that context I think that the problems with lead in our drinking water would be headline news on a regular basis.”
To address the sprawling problem completely, the City must account a number of issues: the immediacy of lead poisoning’s dangers, the geography of the water distribution system, the public-private nature of the utility, the financial limitations of universal lead pipe replacement, and the systematic inequalities prevalent in most environmental pollution.
The team of engineers offered insight into their comprehensive approach to tackling a crisis that, as it stands, has no one clear answer. The meeting yielded explanations of corrosion control, pipe remediation, loan programs for private pipe replacement, and public education.
Yet, lead remains, and so the question persists: are these efforts enough?
Federal regulators set limits for the amount of lead acceptable in drinking water at 15 parts per billion, but in reality, no level of lead is safe. Lead is a heavy metal that settles in the bones and bloodstream through the ingestion of tainted water, dust, or paint chips. And when children consume lead, they can develop severe neurological problems.
“We worry most about the threat of lead to the developing brain,” Brion told the Indy. “It has the potential to cause a traumatic brain injury which can then lead to all sorts of trouble down the road.” According to Brion, lead can affect memory, impulse control, and behavior. The biggest threat exists for children under the age of six, who are likely to be exposed to lead dust and chips while playing outside.
Lead poisoning is also a larger threat to marginalized groups. “Lead can impact people regardless of their location, but it does disproportionately affect low-income communities, communities of color, and immigrants,” KellyAnn Cameron, an AmeriCorps VISTA member working with the Childhood Lead Action Project, told the Indy. She attributed this to the fact that not all literature about lead is available in multiple languages and that landlords tend to not maintain their properties with the same diligence of homeowners.
Although soil and air-based dust—a remnant of decades of leaded gasoline—and paint chippings are the most potent sources of lead in the environment, lead-contaminated water should also be an urgent concern for Providence residents.
But how does lead get into the water in the first place?
Providence Water’s main reservoir and treatment plant is in Scituate, 11 miles west of Providence. From there, water flows in huge cast-iron or concrete pipes, most over 50 inches in diameter, eastward to Providence and the other cities and towns in the distribution system.
But these “mains,” even the old ones, are not Providence’s biggest lead threat. That would be the service lines, the smaller pipes that connect the mains to individual homes. For decades, these service lines were made out of lead due to its durability, pliability, and price, and these lines still service 13,800 of homes in the area today. Providence switched from installing new lead pipes in 1945, and since 1996 has spent $56 million to replace approximately 18,000 lead services, according to Providence Water.
Steve Hamburg, the chief scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund and a Providence resident, explained to the Indy that his own home on College Hill had a lead service line when he bought it over 20 years ago. He paid to have his private service line replaced, but he believes that Providence Water should be replacing all service lines, both public and private, whenever they replace a main in the street. That way, private citizens won’t be tasked with rectifying a public health risk.
The distinction between public and private service lines is a critical distinction within the Providence Water system. The public side of the service line runs from the main in the street to the curb of the home. Providence Water owns this section of piping, and every time they replace a main, they also replace that portion of the line. However, the private side, running from the curb into the home, is owned by the homeowner, which Providence Water does not replace regardless of lead levels.
“These service lines should be replaced, whether it's on the East Side or the South Side or Elmhurst or anywhere else in the city,” Hamburg told the Indy. “It’s one of these situations where a relatively straightforward solution has been avoided for unknown reasons, and in low income neighborhoods you’re going to see higher exposures.” But the reasons are not entirely unknown, with Providence Water’s policy largely driven by adherence to federal laws and the binds of financial constraints.
A utility’s responsibility to manage lead contamination started with the federal Lead and Copper Rule of 1991. The rule mandates that utilities test lead concentrations across a sample of customer taps based on which would likely have higher lead levels as a result of proximity to lead service lines. When the tests indicate lead concentrations over the action level in more than 10 percent of the samples, the utility is mandated to reevaluate corrosion control practices, conduct public education, and begin public lead service line replacements. Providence Water’s Water Main Rehabilitation Program was made to execute this mandate, and lays out how, over the 2019 construction season, about 16 miles of distribution mains will be rehabilitated in three service areas from late-March to November.
Back at Providence Water headquarters, Gregg Giasson, the executive engineer and deputy general manager at Providence Water, explained how Providence Water decides where and when to replace pipes. He’s been with Providence Water for six years, and has seen the utility through the entirety of its lead mitigation efforts.
All decisions about where to replace pipes start with data collection. As federally mandated through the Clean Water Act, Providence Water collects 300 samples from across their system, which includes the entire northern half of Rhode Island, every six months. Test bottles are left out on the doors of selected customers, filled by those customers, and picked up by Providence Water employees, who send them to a lab for independent testing.
Providence Water also analyzes calls about water quality, historical information on the age and material of certain pipes, and details about pipe conditions collected during repairs.
“There are twelve criteria,” Giasson told the Indy. “Water quality, condition, flow, pipe material, areas that have low flow, and a bunch of other criteria that we use. So we take those criteria, we score the pipes within our system, and that ranks them from most in need to be replaced to the ones least in need.” Giasson said that water quality, which includes the presence of lead in the water, is the most important benchmark, and that decisions about where to replace pipes in the city are made as an engineering team, taking into account the various benchmarks.
Providence Water’s lead mitigation program receives assistance from a board of six experts, which includes Marc Edwards, who was one of the original whistleblowers who called attention to the crisis in Flint, Michigan.
Information supplied by Providence Water shows that the East Side of Providence and College Hill neighborhoods were some of the first parts of the city to receive water main replacement since the program began in earnest in 2014. When asked why these areas, some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Providence, are being prioritized for replacement, Giasson said, “the East Side of Providence is probably the oldest section of our distribution system. We have 100-year-old pipes in those areas, so they shoot up to the top of the list because they’re the oldest part of our system, and also they’re farthest from our treatment plant so the water takes the longest to get there.” Providence Water declined to share with the Indy the data that they use to prioritize certain areas.
Under the Lead and Copper Rule, water utilities are required to provide the opportunity for lead service line replacement to all of their customers. The issue is that Providence Water only has jurisdiction over the public mains and public service lines, and require homeowners to pay to replace their own private lines if they’re interested in replacement.
For those looking to replace their private side service line, Providence Water offers a 3-year, zero-interest loan program to help subsidize the cost, which averages $3,600 in Providence, according to Giasson. Indeed, the first thing you see when faced with Providence Water’s website is a massive banner advertising this loan program. However, Giasson said that 100 people have taken up the offer so far, which is only 0.7 percent of the 13,800 homes currently linked to lead service lines. Because property owners can’t be compelled to pay to replace their lines, and because the utility-provided assistance is currently unsubstantial, most private lines are left unremediated. Problematically, partial remediation actually leads to an increase in lead concentration levels for a period following the removal of the street lines.
“We advocate for full service line replacement because when you only replace half, there’s some evidence that suggests pretty strongly that partial service line replacement increases lead in the water,” said Cameron, the Childhood Lead Action Project employee, citing an EPA paper from 2011 that analyzed partial pipe replacement in Washington D.C. “To only replace half the pipe can be more dangerous, not less, as far as the data goes.”
But regardless of the health risks, the homeowner is liable for paying the private-side fee. Providence Water has neither the financial resources nor legal power to force homeowners to replace their lead service line. All homeowners want to replace their lead pipes, but for many, the cost of replacement is prohibitive, a fact evidenced by the only 100 people in the city who have taken up the zero-interest loan offer since its inception in 2018.
For customers who still have private lead service lines, Providence Water offers a number of ways to mitigate the amount of lead flowing into individual homes. Chief among these is the distribution of free water filters, typically Britas, to customers who have had the public side of their service line replaced, but not their private side.
Providence Water also distributes information using different pamphlets and printables and on social media: run the water until cold to make sure it is coming from the main in the street and not your lead service line, and water your plants before you fill a pot with water for cooking. The purpose of these steps is to flush out any water that may have been sitting in your lead pipe which may contain higher levels of lead particles. The only true solution to avoiding lead poisoning is comprehensive lead abatement, which these 'tips and tricks' do little to aid.
When discussing how Providence Water’s methods compare to other utilities in the country, Giasson said that, “a lot of [other utilities] look to us and what we do. They really like how our program works…so we tend to be a leader in the industry.”
However, The Health Impact Project, a collaborative study between the Pew Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Trust, highlights cities with more progressive programs than Providence’s. They look to Milwaukee as an example of a model policy that promotes full lead service line replacement. There, the city’s water system prioritizes replacing the entire service line, not just the public side utility. If the city replaces the public side of the service line, either for planned pipe renewal or on an emergency basis, the city will replace the entire service, private included, at no cost to the homeowner.
Milwaukee is also using state grants to replace lead service lines at 300 day care centers and 300 other at-risk residences in the city. Additionally, the city subsidizes replacements by property owners of the private side service line by making homeowners responsible only for the first third of replacement costs—typically about $1,600. Increases in water prices are paying for the public side replacements, and increases in property taxes are helping fund the private side replacement.
But Providence Water is already running on a tight budget, and they’ve decided to prioritize main replacement over subsidizing private-side service lines. The Milwaukee program is made possible by funding specific to the replacement of private side lead service lines, in the form of state grants to Milwaukee Water Works, as well as funds in their budget allocated specifically for private lead line abatement. In the City’s current budget, Providence Water isn't delegated similar funding.
Lead is an invisible evil. It harms everyone who consumes it and disproportionately affects marginalized communities and children. Providence Water is taking what it considers to be the most comprehensive approach to battling this insidious beast, and has prided itself on its effectiveness, but this sense of contentment is neither justified nor acceptable until the city is free of lead’s toxic grip. Other cities, like Milwaukee, have taken new approaches to battling this crisis, finding new sources of funding to replace more of the most dangerous pipes in their system.
If lead contamination is to be addressed completely, then Providence Water needs to do more to help customers eliminate lead from their private lines. “We want to see full replacement and removal of lead service lines,” Brion told the Indy. “It makes sense to do that in conjunction with the multi-year, multi-million dollar water main replacement program that is currently going on.”
In the meantime, Providence Water has created an online map that allows customers to check whether or not their homes are serviced by a “suspected or confirmed” private or public lead service line. The homes with lead lines are marked with orange dots, and those without, blue ones. The streets around College Hill have stretches of blue, but areas in Fox Point, Elmhurst, Olneyville, and almost every other neighborhood of Providence are stained with orange.
Zooming out even further, the City becomes a mix of orange and blue, contaminated and clean, revealing all that’s hidden beneath these streets.
PEDER SCHAEFER, RICARDO GOMEZ, & DEBORAH MARINI B’22 are sponsored by Brita ©.