- Associated Press - Saturday, April 9, 2016

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee’s drinking water generally has lead levels well below those that have raised concerns in Flint, Michigan, an Associated Press survey of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data has found.

But the fact that a utility shows no lead in its system is no guarantee that an individual home served by that system is lead-free. Even if a public water system has no lead pipes, lead can still enter drinking water through the home plumbing. That’s especially true in older homes that may have lead service lines leading from the meter to the house, lead-based solder on interior copper pipes, or brass fixtures that leach lead.

Randal Braker is the general manager at the Duck River Utility Commission, which serves about 60,000 people in the Tullahoma and Manchester area. His system was just under the EPA limit during the last round of testing even though there is no lead in the service lines.

Braker said a few old homes with lead problems can push a system over the limit. And samples can sometimes vary from one day to the next.

“We’re never going to be able to say we have perfect water - it’s a solvent!” he said. “You just have to be practical and committed to having the best water we can.”

Periodic lead testing from a sample of home water taps is required by the EPA, and in Tennessee that testing is coordinated by the Department of Environment and Conservation.

TDEC Commissioner Robert Martineau, in a recent letter to the EPA, outlined steps the state is taking in response to the Flint crisis. Those steps include taking a closer look at corrosion control measures that essentially coat all the pipes in a system to prevent lead from leaching into the water. Another change will require utilities to inform their customers more quickly about sampling results and lead problems.

In Tennessee, in addition to water sampling, children are tested for lead in their blood as part of the childhood lead poisoning prevention program. High lead levels are reported to the Health Department, said Dr. Michael Warren, an assistant health commissioner with the state Health Department.

The largest drinking water distributor in Tennessee is Memphis Light, Gas and Water, which serves a population of about 650,000 with water from an underground aquifer.

President and CEO Jerry Collins said the system still has lead service lines, but the utility is steadily replacing them whenever it makes repairs. Memphis touts the quality of its drinking water and earlier this year sent 12,000 bottles of its tap water to Flint.

Nashville’s Metro Water Services, the second largest provider in the state, serves about 550,000 people with water drawn from the Cumberland River. Spokeswoman Sonia Allman said that, like Memphis, Nashville replaces its lead service lines whenever it makes repairs.

Because work on the lines can sometimes dislodge the protective coating that corrosion control provides, Nashville flushes its lines and also asks residents to flush their lines after the repairs are complete. And since the Flint crisis, the utility has added an additional step of testing for lead at all homes and businesses after doing any work on the lines that run to their water meters.

The only Tennessee water system that has tested over the EPA limit for lead in recent years is the Watauga River Regional Water Authority, which serves about 38,000 people in the Elizabethton area.

Executive Director Bryon Trantham said the problem arose three years ago when the authority first began supplying lake water to people who had been drinking well and spring water. After adjusting the water’s acidity and adding a corrosion controller, the water has tested under the lead limit for the past year.

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