When Terry Combs found out he might have a lead pipe in his home conveying his drinking water supply, his stress level went up.

“Am I going to have to dig up everything? Two or three years ago we had a water break in the kitchen and it was like, ‘Here we go again.’”

The Hooper Water Improvement District is among culinary water providers in Utah and across the country alerting homeowners that their residence may have been constructed during a period in which lead piping was used.

Homes built in 1987 or before are on the candidate list following the congressional passage of a law prohibiting the use of lead in piping for any public water system.

While lead is prevalent in dust, air and dirt, it is drinking water that presents the most hazardous concern, especially for young children because of their developmental stage. Children can experience reduced IQ levels, loss of learning and language skills, hearing loss and impacts to their attention span.

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The age factor

Combs and his wife, Kris, moved to Hooper in 1984 from Layton and bought a home constructed in 1965.

At his age, he said there was no way he was venturing into the tiny crawl space under his home, so he called the city.

On Monday, the district’s water superintendent Tyler Britt and Mike Freeman, the system’s water operator who is over the lead and water program, showed up at Combs’ home for the scheduled inspection.

Tyler Britt, left, and Mike Freeman, with the Hooper Water Improvement District, point out a spot under the home as homeowner Terry Combs watches as they do a water pipe inspection at Combs’ home in Hooper on Monday, Aug. 7, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

It did not take long and they delivered the news Combs had been hoping for: no lead piping, but rather galvanized steel.

“I am a happy man now,” he said, grinning. “The anticipation was killing me.”

Hooper has 7,000 water connections and of those, 1,300 were identified in need of outreach and inspection. The city sent out information which details how homeowners can conduct the inspection themselves, document the evidence with photos and return that for record keeping.

Or, if the homeowner would like an inspection conducted by the district, they can schedule an appointment.

Britt said the city itself is lucky because there is no lead piping in their delivery system. But from the meter to the home is the developer or homeowner’s responsibility.

“The most important part of this is that we want to make sure people are at ease and that they are safe,” Freeman said.

Of the 1,300 mailers sent, about 400 of them have been returned so far.

“We have had a lot of participation,” said Cole Allen, office manager at the district. “A lot more than we expected.”

Hooper’s water district had this advice for homeowners identified as potential candidates for lead piping:

  • Find the emergency shut-off valve.
  • Check the color of the pipe. Bright blue or black is likely plastic tubing; dull, silver-gray lead piping is easily scratched with a coin. In addition, a magnet will not cling to lead pipes. Copper piping is the color of a penny and galvanized steel, which is also dull gray, will attract a magnet.
  • If the line is suspected to be lead, try gently etching into the pipe because lead is a soft metal and scratches easily. Don’t attempt this on possible plastic piping.

Lead and the time of Romans

Tim Davis, director of the Utah Division of Drinking Water, said a revision put forth by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires these inspections as part of an update to the federal lead and copper rule.

In Utah, it impacts 500 community water providers and nontransient and noncommunity water systems such as RV parks and campgrounds.

“It is huge. It is huge from our perspective and it is huge from a community perspective. This first piece is just really doing the initial work to identify where there is lead. The beauty of this though is if we can find the lead service lines and we can get them out, then you’ve taken out a historic threat to public health. You’ve removed it once and for all,” Davis said.

“Lead is a neurotoxin and especially dangerous to children,” he added. “And we all know the story of Flint (Michigan) but it’s something that if we do it once and we do it right, then the problem is taken care of for all time and future, at least from that one particular source of lead.”

Homeowner Kris Combs shakes hands with Tyler Britt after he and Mike Freeman, who work for the Hooper Water Improvement District, finish a water pipe inspection of their water pipes on Monday, Aug. 7, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
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Unlike Hooper, some community water providers with 10,000 connections or less need to tackle the issue of lead pipes as part of their delivery system, Davis said. To that end, the state received $28 million this year and will for another four years for service line inventory and replacement. The expertise of an engineering firm has been tapped by the state to provide technical assistance on that process.

Davis said 104 systems have applied for that help, while an additional 70 systems have applied for grants or loans to get the necessary technical assistance for the inventorying. The state has additional information on the lead and copper rule revision on its website.

“We’re trying to get everybody front loaded right now with technical assistance to get them done as quickly as possible,” Davis said, adding the deadline is October 2024.

“You know, as a nation, we’ve put forward significant resources to do both the inventories by identifying the lead service lines and then to replace them,” Davis said.

He said he’s unsure if there will be adequate funding in place to make the necessary fixes, but addressing the problem is key.

“It’s a potential risk to public health and our families that we can solve right now and it’s a threat to public health that’s been out there back to Roman times, with lead that has been leaching into water and causing irreparable harm to people and permanent damage to people.”

Bigger systems, bigger problems?

The Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities has 90,000 connections serving 360,000 people not only in the city proper but in Cottonwood Heights, portions of Sandy, Millcreek, Holladay and the unincorporated county.

Dustin White, who is the lead and copper control manager with the department, said in addition to a pilot study, the city has gone through 17,000 records with another 6,000 to go.

Homes built prior to the 1950s are under scrutiny, as well as homes in the 1980s era, but White said they have been pleasantly surprised with the surveillance results so far.

“Of the 90,000 that we have, we have less than 1% verified (as lead) on the private side,” White said, emphasizing, however, that there are many variables left to take into account as the inventorying moves forward.

“We‘ve gone through and ran worst case scenarios, but every time we’ve gone out and checked, most times the lines have already been replaced,” said Teresa Gray, the department’s water quality and treatment administrator.

It’s been a long process the department started over two years ago, Gray said.

“What’s required in the rule is that we have to go through and evaluate all of our connections and the documentation for those and that part of it will be completed by the end of August,” she said.

Mike Freeman, water operator with the Hooper Water Improvement District, talks with homeowner Terry Combs as he and water superintendent Tyler Britt do a water pipe inspection at Combs’ home on Monday, Aug. 7, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The age of the lines presents its own set of challenges when it comes to that documentation.

“Those records, because we have such old connections, are not always accurate. They’re not always complete. And when I say complete, they’ll put yes that there was a line installed. It was a one inch line,” she said. “But nobody back then thought to put it down that it was a copper line.”

The department has also developed its own outreach material to guide homeowners on what to look for when it comes to lead pipes.

In addition to homeowners, Gray said the city went through and did an overlay with all the schools in areas where there are high populations of children ages 5 and under to identify hotspots.

Schools are in the midst of their own testing as part of the Utah Lead Free Learning Initiative, a Utah law that requires all drinking water fixtures in schools be tested for lead by the end of this year — which follows a voluntary effort launched six years ago.

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Allen, back in Hooper, said it is all part of an effort to keep people safe.

“At the end of the day, this is to protect the public.”