IDEM and EPA don’t appear to agree on whether dangerous lead levels EPA found in East Chicago’s drinking water are a systemwide problem, but there is consensus that residents of the USS Lead Superfund site may not see improvements in their tap water as quickly as others.
Dead-end water lines near railroad tracks, the relocation of more than 1,000 from a public housing complex and the loss of the city’s second-largest water customer could result in lower water flows, sources said.
Lower water flows mean less orthophosphate — a chemical added to water to control corrosion of lead pipes — is being pulled through lines to create a protective scale that can prevent releases of lead and copper.
East Chicago increased the amount of orthophosphate it adds to water in October, after the U.S. Environmetal Protection Agency notified the Indiana Department of Environmental Management it found low or no orthophosphate levels at two homes in the Superfund site. It can take up to a year to "optimize" chemical levels, and the only solution that is 100 percent safe is replacing lead pipes, lawyers said.
EPA found low orthophosphate levels during a pilot study at the Superfund site, but later said its sampling results and the city’s monthly operating reports showed high lead levels were likely to be systemwide. The agency found lead levels above its 15 parts per billion action level at 18 of 43 homes tested.
No level of lead in water is safe, EPA said. However, EPA's recent water sampling was more robust than testing required under the federal agency's Lead and Copper Rule, which East Chicago has been in compliance with since 1993, officials said.
Lead in the soil and lead in the water are unrelated, but Superfund residents — particularly children — exposed to both face cumulative health risks. Up to 90 percent of East Chicago’s water lines could be lead; EPA recommended residents should assume they have lead lines and use a certified water filter.
IDEM: EPA found isolated location
A Jan. 5 email obtained from EPA in a Freedom of Information Act request shows IDEM Drinking Water Branch Chief Mary Hollingsworth thought her department’s “close working relationship” with EPA Region 5 was compromised because of the way EPA handled its pilot study.
“IDEM was never contacted nor had any input before this ‘pilot project’ was started,” Hollingsworth wrote. “IDEM expressed to you and other members of Region 5 our concerns with this ‘pilot project’ on several different occasions.”
EPA said it disagreed.
“EPA has a strong relationship with IDEM continues to work in close collaboration to address all the issues associated with the USS Lead cleanup, including the agency’s drinking water pilot study,” a spokeswoman said.
In the Jan. 5 email to an EPA employee, Hollingsworth took issue with details in a letter EPA Region 5 Acting Adminstrator Robert Kaplan wrote to a congressman.
“It needs to be clear that IDEM asked East Chicago to increase orthophosphate levels in October 2016, because EPA made a recommendation to IDEM that there should be higher orthophosphate residuals in the Superfund site area,” Hollingsworth said.
“The city does not conduct their routine monthly testing for orthophosphate in the Superfund site area; therefore EPA’s orthophosphate results from the Superfund site area are not consistent with the levels on the city’s monthly reports. The special Superfund study conducted by EPA found an isolated location in the distribution that had a low amount of orthophosphate residuals.”
Marc Edwards, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, said it’s hypothetically possible EPA found an isolated location. However, results from EPA’s pilot study, the city’s monthly operating reports and knowledge of water chemistry indicate EPA was correct to assume high lead levels likely are a systemwide problem, he said.
Edwards, who reviewed documents for The Times, said East Chicago for decades likely has not adequately treated its water to prevent corrosion of lead lines. A 1992 plan called for using an orthophosphate-polyphosphate blend not effective in controlling lead releases at an insufficient dose, he said. In addition, the city’s change to sodium hexametaphosphate to treat its water in spring 2015 could have been worse that having no corrosion control at all, he said.
“I think they should assume that the lead levels are high throughout the city, because they did not have an effective corrosion control program, and the risks are too high to residents without extensive additional monitoring,” Edwards said.
'They could do better'
In addition to recommending the city increase orthophosphate levels, IDEM said it has stepped up testing.
"The city is currently monitoring for orthophosphate in the Superfund area and has a target orthophosphate residual of at least 1 mg/L," the department said. "Each resident that has their tap sampled for lead and copper is notified of their results via the lead consumer notice."
Edwards said the latest target orthophosphate residual might not be high enough.
"To put it in perspective, Flint is currently feeding seven times more orthophosphate," he said. "It is possible that the current levels are adequate, but they are still relatively low."
Also, the orthophosphate-polyphosphate blend East Chicago now uses is more effective than sodium hexametaphosphate, which Edwards described as a "bad" corrosion control. He said but East Chicago "could do better with just orthophosphate.”
IDEM, which has primary regulatory authority over the city's drinking water, said it does not have authority to demand the use of a specific chemical mix for achieving corrosion control.
“Public water systems, including East Chicago, must achieve the end goal of protecting the pipes with corrosion-control treatment to prevent lead from leaching into the drinking water supply,” IDEM said. “East Chicago has done this successfully since 1993. IDEM staff monitor corrosion control (among other things) and makes recommendations based on what we see in monthly reports and advise accordingly.”
IDEM has committed to conducting more water sampling in East Chicago.
Reduced water flows an issue
What Edwards, EPA and IDEM appear to agree on is that recent increases in orthophosphate to help control lead releases from aging pipes may not reach residents, particularly Superfund residents, as quickly because of reduced water flows.
East Chicago recently lost its second-largest water customer, Indiana American Water, officials said. In 2015, Indiana American purchased more than 465 million gallons of water from East Chicago, records show.
Edwards said it's possible the loss of the Indiana American contract could reduce water flows in East Chicago if the company was pulling water through pipes that also serve the city.
East Chicago Utilities Director Greg Crowley said water sold to Indiana American was pumped through the city's mains.
"There's a tie-in at a location near Cline Avenue," he said.
IDEM said dead-end lines near railroad tracks in the Superfund site and the relocation of more than 1,000 people from the West Calumet Housing Complex, located in the first of three Superfund cleanup zones, also could cause reduced flows.
“Less people using the water means the water flows less in the lines, which means the orthophosphate is not moving and might be dissipating in the water mains,” IDEM said.
“The areas where EPA was finding no orthophosphate residual are in dead-end lines near the railroad tracks, so there is stagnant water in the area that will allow the residual levels to dissipate — these same areas also had low chlorine residual levels. If water is not being used in the homes, fresh water does not get pulled in from the water main. If the fresh water containing the orthophosphate is not being pulled into the service line, it cannot protect the customer at the home from the potential of lead leaching from the service line.”
Lawyer: All should be given filters
EPA agreed reduced water use can affect how long it takes for orthophosphate to reach an area.
“EPA is confident that IDEM’s recently announced plan to provide water filters to all homes in Zones 2 and 3 ensures that residents have safe drinking water,” a spokeswoman said.
An IDEM contractor began distributing free water filters to residents in zones 2 and 3 of the Superfund site last week.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, one of 17 groups petitioning EPA to use its emergency powers to address lead levels in East Chicago’s drinking water, said water filters for Superfund residents is not enough. All residents should be given filters, because high lead levels may be systemwide.
According to the petition, it can take up to a year to “optimize” corrosion control. In the meantime, residents should not be drinking, cooking or preparing baby formula with unfiltered East Chicago water, the council said.
Along with filters, Superfund residents are being given a three-month supply of cartridges, which need to be changed from time to time to ensure the filters remain effective.
“Three months’ supply of filters is a Band-Aid solution to a much more serious issue,” said Anjali Waikar, an attorney with the council. “While it’s laudable that IDEM is taking some proactive measures to ensure that residents in parts of the Superfund site have access to filters, IDEM should be ensuring that the filters are available to all city residents and until such time as the water is safe to drink.”
* Editor's note: This story has been updated from a previous version.