By Adam Hocking
MARSHFIELD — With the ongoing Flint water crisis grabbing headlines and causing devastation to individuals and families in that community, Hub City Times thought it pertinent to examine Marshfield’s water situation.
The crisis in Flint stems from the city switching its water supply source. Flint had purchased water from Detroit, which came from Lake Huron, but in a cost-saving measure switched to using the Flint River. According to multiple media reports, authorities did not treat Flint’s water with an anti-corrosive agent, and this oversight allowed lead to seep into the water.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Lead found in tap water usually comes from the corrosion of older fixtures or from the solder that connects pipes. When water sits in leaded pipes for several hours, lead can leach into the water supply.”
The Environmental Protection Agency says that lead exposure is particularly dangerous for children and, “In children low levels of exposure have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells.” In adults, according to the EPA, lead exposure can cause “cardiovascular effects, decreased kidney function, (and) reproductive problems (in both men and women).”
Marshfield’s water supply
Marshfield’s source of water is groundwater, which collects at 15 wells in and around the city. Marshfield Utilities Water Superintendent Dave Wasserburger said, “There’s no lead in the water as we pump it out of the ground.”
Water mains that supply entire streets with water in Marshfield are made of cast iron, and sometimes fiberglass material is inserted inside of the cast iron if there are multiple breaks in a main. The mains are not lead. Where lead sometimes appears in Marshfield is in pipes that connect individual houses to the water mains.
Marshfield Utilities officials estimated that between 1,500 to 2,000 homes have lead pipes out of about 7,200 homes they service. As Marshfield Utilities installs advanced metering infrastructure in each home, it will survey to find out exactly how many homes have lead pipes.
Lead entry points: Chemistry and biology
Wasserburger said there are two main sources that can corrode lead pipes and cause lead to enter the water supply.
“One is by the corrosion of the water, and that’s chemistry. If the chemistry of the water is such that it’s corrosive, it can dissolve lead as the water sits stagnant in the pipe. Once that stagnant water in the pipe is flushed out, there’s no lead in the water,” Wasserburger said. He said that other “chemistry” could be added to change the corrosiveness of water on pipes, “But it hasn’t been needed in Marshfield,” adding that Marshfield’s water is naturally not very corrosive.
Marshfield Utilities General Manager Bob Trussoni said that if, for example, a family has been out of town for several days and water may have remained stagnant in the pipes during that time, the customer can flush the water out by running his or her tap for several minutes.
The more prominent potential source of lead in Marshfield water is biological, Wasserburger said.
“The little microbes eat on the lead and bust little microscopic pieces off,” he said, and it is then possible for lead to enter the water supply.
“We can control that also by reducing the amount of biological activity in the distribution system as much as possible,” Wasserburger said.
“If we can keep our distribution system clean and keep a good, consistent chlorine residual, it helps knock down the biology in the pipes, keeps the lead out of our water,” Wasserburger said.
Wasserburger said that the levels of lead and copper in Marshfield water were trending upward in 2005, and an expert, Abigail Cantor, was brought in to help study the problem. Cantor is a published author on the subject of evaluating drinking water.
“Before we started panicking, we had Abigail come in and start working with us,” Wasserburger said. After consulting with Cantor, Marshfield Utilities worked to establish more neutral pH levels in the water, which increased the effectiveness of the chlorine it uses.
Also from working with Cantor came a process called “unit-directional flushing,” where water flow is controlled in the water mains by closing surrounding valves, and then a hydrant is opened to allow water to rush through and scour a single main at a high velocity. By maximizing the flow, the pipes can be more thoroughly scoured or cleaned than in the past.
Officials said that samples of Marshfield water from “random distribution points” are tested for safety by an independent certified lab quarterly at the behest of the federal government, and Marshfield water is tested for bacteria, chlorine, and pH levels every day.
Replacing lead pipes
Replacing all lead pipes is a discussion point, Trussoni said, but as the customers own the pipes running from the edge of their property line to their house, they would be on the hook for the expense of that transition. Trussoni said the Public Service Commission will not allow local utility companies to spend money to incentivize people to make the change.
What to replace lead service lines with is also a point of contention. Wasserburger said some cities are choosing plastic and others copper. Copper, Wasserurger said, does not have the “health implications” that lead does, and a much higher amount of copper is allowable in drinking water.
Plastic is a cheaper option than copper for replacing lead pipes, officials said, but it has not been studied as thoroughly as copper.