Why did Waverly wait more than a year to stop using water tank lined with lead paint?
by Robert Zullo, originally posted on September 24, 2016
WAVERLY — In March, the Virginia Department of Health, which had caught wind of potential lead contamination inside the pale blue water tank that bears the town of Waverly’s name, recommended that the tank be “taken offline immediately.”
The department, relying on the report of a contractor working for Waverly, determined that the 100,000-gallon tank, one of two used to store treated drinking water for the town of more than 2,100, contained lead-based primer paint on the interior. And due to a failure of the wax tar coating over the primer, the paint had become exposed to the water.
Worse, the town had known about the problem for at least a year, said Daniel Horne, an engineering field director in the Norfolk office of the department’s Office of Drinking Water.
Horne suspects the paint could have been the cause of a 2014 sample recorded in the town’s required water Consumer Confidence Report issued in 2015 that showed lead at 30 parts per billion, or twice the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency’s action level of 15 parts per billion.
“We surmise that some of the paint chips from inside got into the distribution system,” Horne said. “Had we known about it, we would have told them that it was not approved. Lead-based paint is never appropriate to use where it would come into contact with drinking water or even raw water.”
Department staff members heard about the lead issue from a representative of a company that had inspected the tank, Scotty Wilkins of Georgia-based Utility Service Group.
“Our working relationships with the majority of our water systems are good, and if they have problems, they tell us about them and bring us in early,” Horne said. “This is unusual that someone knows about a problem for this long and doesn’t tell us about it.”
Though Health Department inspectors do not climb water towers or enter confined spaces, they saw pictures of the tank’s interior and had no reason to question the contractor’s findings.
“It didn’t look good,” Horne said.
After hearing from the Health Department, Waverly officials agreed to take the tank offline immediately.
Additional testing showed no potential health hazards from the wells from which the town draws its water. Nor does the department suspect any problems with the town’s second water tank, Horne said.
The department is not contemplating any type of enforcement action but has insisted that the lead paint be removed before the tank can be returned to service, Horne said.
Lead was banned in paint for homes in 1978 in the U.S., but it still is present in some industrial uses, such as the paint used for roadway markings.
Another round of residential testing at 20 homes, conducted in May as part of a monitoring requirement triggered by the high lead result in 2014, turned up detectable lead levels at seven homes, ranging from 2 parts per billion to 5.29 parts per billion.
None approached the EPA action level, and Horne said the results are likely the product of household plumbing components, which can leach lead into tap water, especially in older plumbing systems, or lead service lines, which property owners, not water systems, generally are responsible for maintaining.
“The tank’s been offline since March, so they’re not getting any lead from the tank,” Horne said.
Officials do not suspect a widespread problem with Waverly’s water and have not observed significant changes in pH levels that might erode pipes and allow more lead to leach out, as occurred in the widely publicized lead contamination case in Flint, Mich.
“This is not anywhere like Flint at all,” Horne said.
He added that the town is working with a consultant to figure out the best way to deal with the tank’s paint and structural problems and has applied for funding from the department to upgrade its water system. The town is responsible for the tank and the distribution system, while the Sussex Service Authority handles the treatment plant, billing and conducts required testing.
“One of the problems with that particular system is the town has contracted with the authority to be their licensed operators but the contract doesn’t cover several areas which would be considered full operations,” Horne said. “They do not pay the authority to flush the lines and keep them clear, and the town doesn’t do that either.”
However, the Health Department warns that there are no safe blood lead levels for children and the EPA says lead “can be harmful to human health even at low exposure levels.”
This summer, dozens of members of Congress signed a letter urging the EPA to lower its action level for lead, partly in response to the crisis in Flint.
“Major public health officials, federal and state public health agencies and international public health organizations have long recognized that there is no safe level of lead,” they wrote.
Waverly Mayor Walter Mason, a former mayor who won the office again in May, has not returned numerous calls from the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Mason referred a reporter who showed up at Town Hall, which sits across the street from the water tower, to Town Attorney Kevin O’Donnell, who likewise has not returned numerous calls to his office in Petersburg.
Officials at the Sussex Service Authority called the 2014 test that exceeded the federal action level for lead an aberration that was unable to be replicated with additional testing.
And a recording of the Town Council’s meeting Sept. 13 included a report from a water committee assembled to work with a contractor, Bowman Consulting of Williamsburg, to develop a course of action for the beleaguered water system. A new well has been drilled, and the town hopes to put out a request for proposals to overhaul its tower soon.
Town officials, including Mason, said they were running the system off a single well while at the same time grappling with widespread leaks.
Four out of Waverly’s five Town Council seats turned over in the May elections, and new Council President Henry A. Thompson, an attorney, said in an interview that much of the concern over the water system stems from “misconceptions.”
“What needs to be done is that true and accurate information needs to be disseminated to the citizens of the town of Waverly,” he said. He added that it wasn’t productive to revisit the past administration and council’s handling of the water tower.
“While we can learn from the past, it does no good to dwell in the past. Moving forward, we intend to take all necessary actions to ensure that the safety and quality of the Waverly water system continues for the present and future. The past is gone regardless of what may or may not have occurred.”
Waverly’s recent past is an understandable place to want to avoid. Former Mayor Barbara Gray, who was facing a petition attempting to remove her from office, in part over a contract she inked with Utility Service Group for repair of the town’s water towers, resigned at the end of August 2015.
According to the Sussex-Surry Dispatch, Gray was blasted at a public meeting in March 2015 that featured calls for her resignation for signing a contract worth a total of $500,000 with Utility Service Group without a council vote.
Wilkins, the company representative, initially agreed to an interview but did not return subsequent calls.
“Unfortunately, Scotty Wilkins had this tremendous contract that he wanted signed, it led to Barbara Gray being removed as mayor, then we had interim mayors,” said Town Councilwoman Kayda Thornton, who also returned to the council in May.
“It should have been taken care of a year ago. I’m not sure why there has been so much procrastination, but we’re just having to deal with it now.”
Thornton said Wilkins was “scaring everyone to death” over the lead issue but it’s not something she worries about. Her house was among those tested in May and showed a lead concentration of 4.27 parts per billion.
She blames her husband for not flushing the line properly before taking the sample. “I don’t want people to freak out, because as far as I know, lead’s not a problem,” she said.
Andy Mayes, another former councilman who is serving on the town’s water committee and works in environmental consulting, also is not concerned about the town’s water quality, though it faces other hurdles in upgrading the system as a whole.
“I live in Waverly. I have two young children,” he said. “I don’t have a filter on my water. I drink it every day.”