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29 Jan 2016

A Broken Trust

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January 29, 2016 Category: Local Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO:  LeeAnne Walters of Flint, Mich., shows water samples from her home from January 21, 2015 and January 15, 2015 after city and state officials spoke during a forum discussing growing health concerns being raised by Flint residents at the Flint City Hall dome. Since the financially struggling city broke away from the Detroit water system last year, residents have been unhappy with the smell, taste and appearance of water from the city’s river as they await the completion of a pipe to Lake Huron. They also have raised health concerns, reporting rashes, hair loss and other problems. A General Motors plant stopped using the water, saying it was rusting its parts. (AP Photo/Detroit Free Press, Ryan Garza)

Because of what’s happening in Flint, Michigan, those managing municipal water supplies aren’t going to have the trust from the public they used to.

By Denise Clay

To most Philadelphians, watching truckloads of water being packed up and sent from the City of Brotherly Love to Flint, Michigan so that the people there can have a lead free source of water to drink, bathe and cook with is heartbreaking.

But for Gary Burlingame, director of the Philadelphia Water Department’s Bureau of Laboratory Services, it’s personal.

For Burlingame and those who do his job, which is making sure the city’s water supply is safe, what’s happening in Flint represents a violation of something important: the public trust.

The thing is, it didn’t have to happen. Because the water industry is a fraternal group that freely shares information, those in charge of meeting the Flint’s water needs could have avoided the current crisis by simply picking up the phone, Burlingame said.

Gary Burlingame, Director, Philadelphia Water Department, Bureau of Laboratory Services.

Gary Burlingame, Director, Philadelphia Water Department, Bureau of Laboratory Services.

“The information was available, and because the water industry is pretty friendly, someone would have shared it,” he said. “They just didn’t make use of it and that took them down a road that’s going to be hard to come back from. It’s a shame.”

Keeping the city from ever having to take a trip down that particular road is something that Burlingame and his colleagues at the Water Department work hard to do. But while they and those whose job it is to keep the waterways that make up the city’s water supply—the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers—clean do their best, water pollution threats that they can’t control are always on the horizon, according to environmental activists.

Unlike smaller cities like Flint, Philadelphia has it’s own laboratory in which it can test the quality of the city’s water. Because of this, thousands of tests a month to make sure it’s safe, he said. Low levels of iron and copper may be okay for humans to digest according to health experts, but there is no such thing as a safe level of lead, Burlingame said.

But how do you keep lead out of the water supply when the city you’re providing water for is over 100 years old and has the water mains and plumbing fixtures to match?

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has a Lead and Copper rule that requires municipalities to use water treatment to address that problem. Philadelphia, according to Burlingame, uses an orthophosphate, a substance that naturally found in water, as a barrier between the water that goes through its pipes and the pipes themselves.

Over the last 10 years, few municipalities have violated the Lead and Copper rule, according to DEP officials. In fact, out of all of the Commonwealth’s 1,978 community water systems, only nine violated the rule in 2014, the last year that data was available.

So it appears that both the Commonwealth and the City are remaining vigilant about keeping the water supply lead free.

But trust in the water industry is not what it used to be.

According to a story in the British newspaper The Guardian, several cities, including Philadelphia, have been using questionable methods to test levels of lead and copper in the city’s water. Yanna Lambrinidou, a professor from Virginia Tech that was part of a federal Environmental Protection Agency task force reviewing the EPA’s lead and copper rules, said the city was using such methods as pre-flushing (running cold water through a faucet for as long as six hours before testing it) to determine the water’s lead and copper levels.

In response to the story, the Philadelphia Water Department sent a letter to PWD customers detailing all of the precautions they take to ensure the safety of the city’s drinking water.

That the PWD had to send that letter to customers wasn’t a surprise, Burlingame said. In light of what’s happening in Flint, it’s hard to blame them, he said.

“I take this personally,” Burlingame said. “This is a black mark on the drinking water community. We don’t see ourselves as businesses, we see what we do as a public service. We do what we do for the people…”

“It always seems to come down to people in the end, doesn’t it?”

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