Why the Flint disaster couldn’t happen here

Water expert Dennis Kelleher: No need to get the lead out.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

Drink up, Long Island: A large-scale lead contamination like the one infecting the public water supply in Flint, Mich. can’t happen here.

That’s the good word from the Long Island Water Conference, the association of Island public water suppliers pumping more than 375 million gallons per day to LI homes and businesses.

Comprised of 45 suppliers, including the Western Nassau and Suffolk County water authorities, the conference has been hip-deep in regional water-quality issues since 1951 and has installed a number of safeguards to ensure widespread contamination by any outside agent doesn’t occur, according to conference exec Dennis Kelleher.

Kelleher, an engineer at H2M architects+engineers in Melville, noted that modern construction standards, careful chemical balancing of the region’s underground aquifer and strict federal inspection requirements – including many overlooked in Flint – ensure that LI’s water remains potable.

To explain why Long Island’s water is safe, Kelleher – whose firm consults directly with 30 Island water suppliers – points out everything that went wrong in Flint. The tide turned when the city, which had been importing its water from the City of Detroit, decided about two years ago to create its own water supply by pumping water from the Flint River into a municipal treatment plant.

The water coming out of the plant passed various contamination tests, but the first big mistake, according to Kelleher, was the water going in.

Because Flint officials chose not to chemically balance the water’s pH level – a numeric scale used to specify the acidity or basicity of any aqueous solution, including water – Flint’s new H2O supply was overly acidic. And as anyone who recalls their high school chemistry knows, acid is corrosive.

“When you have acidic water sitting in pipes, it starts corroding them,” Kelleher said. “And the lead in the plumbing fixtures starts leaching into the water.”

The contamination still could have been contained, Kelleher added, but for the second big mistake. Although federal regulations required new lead-sampling programs as soon as the public water supply was changed, Flint didn’t start testing for lead until it was too late.

“They didn’t realize they had to start testing immediately,” Kelleher said. “They could have had results within six months, but they didn’t even start testing until 18 months later, when people started complaining.”

Thanks in part to the strict oversight provided by the LIWC, all Long Island-based water suppliers have been following those strict federal inspection mandates for the past quarter-century.

And “we don’t just go in and grab a sample,” Kelleher noted. “We ask the homeowner to take the sample when they first get up in the morning … a worst-case sample of water that’s been sitting in the pipes all night. The water they use for that first cup of coffee.”

Constant testing is just one of many shields protecting LI consumers and their precious water supply, which sits in an underground aquifer that, estimates say, contains between 40 trillion and 50 trillion gallons of fresh water.

The Island receives annual rainfall of about 44 inches, Kelleher noted, and about half of that finds its way into the aquifer. Even with the Island eclipsing 3 million residents, there’s “plenty down there to maintain a water supply for future generations,” according to the engineer.

But keeping Long Island’s water supply clean has always been a challenge, ever since the 1950s and ’60s, when the region’s dry cleaners – legally at the time – dumped their chemical waste behind their shops, and contaminants from other commercial sources starting building up.

To keep the water safe for consumption – specifically, to prevent the kind of corrosion eating away at the lead pipes in Flint – Long Island suppliers have been providing “corrosion control treatments” for the past 30-plus years, according to Kelleher. Untreated, the water in the underground aquifer has a pH balance of about 5.5, he noted, which is fairly balanced between acidic and basic. The balance can be improved to about 7 with the addition of lime or lye.

One thing no longer added: fluoride, a practice that fell out of favor in the 1980s, when dental studies proved U.S. populations were receiving enough fluoride from other sources. But Island water suppliers do dose the water with chlorine, Kelleher said, for disinfection purposes.

Providers in South Shore regions with higher iron concentrates may also add phosphate to sequester the iron, through Kelleher stressed iron is more of an aesthetic threat than a health threat: It won’t hurt you, but it does give water an unpleasant rusty hue.

The safety protocols don’t stop there. Forward-thinking Long Island engineers used mostly copper, instead of lead, for the pipes carrying water from public mains to individual houses. And while a lead solder alloy was used as piping in most earlier Island homes, it was banned by local and state officials in 1986 and replaced by tin and antimony, a lustrous gray metalloid.

All told, the innovative plumbing standards and chemical cocktails keep the Island’s private water supply safe – and the safety levels are reinforced in an annual water supply statement the LIWC requires suppliers to provide to customers every year before May 31.

While lead isn’t a major concern, Kelleher acknowledged the Island’s water supply can never be declared 100-percent contamination-free. Some chemical plumes dating back to those 1960s dry cleaners and other famous LI groundwater contamination incidents are still “floating around out there,” the engineer said, and often require chemical treatments.

And the simple fact that so many people live here, he added, mandates constant diligence.

“When you have 3 million people living, working and playing on top of the water supply, there will always be some kind of contamination getting into the groundwater,” Kelleher noted.

That’s actually his biggest concern looking ahead: Not lead or even fertilizers, but human contamination – specifically, pharmaceutical contamination from patients who only biologically assimilate a percentage of the drugs they ingest, and literally flush away the rest when nature calls.

Such concerns are shared by all water suppliers and customers in all regions, however. The takeaway on Long Island’s water supply, according to Kelleher, is that, relatively speaking, it’s safe.

Though a few added precautions couldn’t hurt.

“Don’t use that first drop of water in the morning,” Kelleher suggested. “Let the water run for a minute before you make your coffee.”