A lead pipe (left) is connected to a new copper pipe at a site in South Memphis where an MLGW crew worked on replacing older pipes. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

With the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill last November, the White House has promised Tennessee $697 million over the next five years to update water infrastructure across the state to eliminate lead service pipes and ensure, “that clean, safe drinking water is a right in all communities.” In pressing for the bill, the Biden administration acknowledged disproportionate consequences of inadequate infrastructures, such as the Flint, Michigan water crisis.

Environmental advocates in Memphis have long pushed for lead pipe replacement, and since 2014, Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division has been searching for and replacing lead pipes. While they don’t know when the new funds will arrive, an official says the utility feels it’s making good progress. An environmental justice advocate said MLGW’s response to the situation still needs more urgency.

When they were installed in cities decades ago, lead pipes were a cheaper and more flexible option for water distribution. However, as they wear down and without proper precautions, the pipes can corrode, adding lead into the water. There is no safe level of lead for humans, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and it is especially dangerous for children. In 2019, after state-mandated testing, high lead levels were found in 10 Memphis public schools.

Even low lead levels in children can cause behavioral, learning and growth problems. Some studies have also associated childhood lead exposure with the likelihood to commit and be a victim of gun violence.

Black and low-income families are at a greater risk of lead exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, since they are more often priced out of adequate housing. Such risks are why health and environmental advocates say replacing lead pipes is an urgent infrastructure issue. But before engineers at MLGW can replace the utility’s lead pipes — they have to find them.

Finding lead pipes

MLGW, like many other utility providers, doesn’t know where every lead service line is, so the process begins with inspection, said Nick Newman, vice president of engineering and operations for the utility.

Lead pipes are found more in houses built before 1986, the year Congress banned them.

With that knowledge, some old but imperfect data, and ongoing inspections, Newman said the utility has a good idea where most of Memphis’ lead pipes are.

The largest concentrations of lead pipes are along the North and South parkways that split Midtown from North and South Memphis, according to Newman. Along with the edges of Midtown, MLGW’s focus areas also include parts of North Memphis, South Memphis and Orange Mound.

So far, MLGW has inspected about 40,000 lines and has marked around 14,000 as either lead service lines or unknown, meaning the line requires more extensive digging and inspection to evaluate, Newman said.

Replacement crews usually inspect and replace pipes blocks at a time, he said, and as core inspections go on, the search area may grow to include Frayser and other neighborhoods north and south of Midtown.

An MLGW crew works on replacing older lead pipes along South Lauderdale Street on Thursday. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

Whether Memphis’ most vulnerable communities are receiving proper attention is a top concern for LaTricea Adams, chairperson of the Shelby County Lead Prevention and Sustainability Commission and Tennessee’s representative to the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

“From an equity perspective, how are they prioritizing?” Adams asked. “The most concentrated communities are Black ones.”

Newman said he and his team are keeping equity in mind during their planning.

“We’ve made sure … that we’re not all concentrating on Midtown,” Newman said. “We’ve probably replaced more in Orange Mound than anywhere else, to be honest with you.”

The plan

When replacements began in 2014, Newman said the utility provider set out to replace 2,000 lines each year but found replacements more difficult than expected, so they lowered the goal.

“We just really didn’t have the resources. Several years ago, we decided we can do 1,000 a year, and then hopefully we can ramp that up as we get better at it — and we have,” Newman said.

MLGW has hit its1,000-line goal for the past two years, Newman said, and is looking to new funding to add momentum.

“If you do the math, we’re doing 1,000 a year and there’s potentially 14,000 to 15,000 out there. It’s a 15-year process, to get the lead out,” Newman said. “We would like to get it out sooner than that. There are other cities that aren’t doing any lead line replacement, so we’re doing a lot better.”

The new plan sounds “doable” to Adams.

In previous years, she has been highly critical of MLGW, Newman and the Memphis City Council, she said for not being transparent or aggressive enough in their efforts to replace the pipes and falling short of their 2000-line goal.

A 15-year removal sits better with Adams because it puts MLGW more in line with the Biden administration’s Lead Pipe and Paint Action Plan, announced last month, to replace all of the country’s lead pipes within the next decade. However, the plan needs more urgency, she said.

Newman said replacements could happen faster with more funding and more personnel. Extra funds would allow MLGW to hire more people and contractors to find all of the lead pipes and replace them.

“A lot of times we meet with some groups, they get really frustrated with this because they want us to do more. And we’re doing all we can right now; with additional funding, hopefully, we can do more.”

The customers’ side

MLGW’s water main lines run under neighborhood roads; from it, service lines branch off to customers’ property, where it meets another line that extends from a residential customer’s house.

While MLGW is responsible for replacing their side of the line, property owners are responsible for theirs, Newman said. Lead can also be found in a home’s plumbing, faucets and fixtures. Inspectors have identified about 22,000 lead lines on the customers’ side that need to be replaced.

“We would love to replace our line and if the [property owner] has got a lead line on their side, they replace their line at the same time. That’s the best scenario you can get. But unfortunately, in Memphis and other cities, most folks can’t really afford to do that.”

Although MLGW has more lead lines to replace, Newman suspects the larger share of Memphis’ lead lines is on property owners’ side, out of the utility’s reach. 

Even then, Newman said Memphis is better positioned than other cities to minimize harm from lead pipes and that their water testing rarely finds lead and if so, not as a result of MLGW pipes.

According to Newman, Memphis used fewer lead pipes than some other big cities, has a cleaner water source in the Memphis Sand aquifer and takes precautions such as treating the water to minimize the corrosion of lead pipes.

“I understand lead lines are a lightning rod and we want to get them out, but I want people to understand that their water is safe. It exceeds our state and federal requirements.”

Although federal and state law doesn’t require water to be completely lead-free despite any level of lead posing a health risk, Adams said calling the water safe is “reckless.”

“No level of lead is safe. So if there are any chances lead may be in the water, it is not scientifically possible for it to be safe,” Adams said. “Federal and state mandates clear MLGW for compliance, but any parts of lead in water is immoral.”

Resources

Memphis Light Gas & Water Division information on water testing and location of lead water lines.

Memphis & Shelby County Lead Safe Collaborative is a nonprofit that seeks to end lead poisoning in Memphis.

Shelby County Health Department lead testing and resources, including blood tests. 

Green and Healthy Homes Initiative for home inspections.

Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at carrington.tatum@mlk50.com


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