News Feature | October 25, 2016

Cost Cuts, Bad Policies Created Portland's ‘Avoidable' Lead Crisis

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

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Portland, OR, may have been able to sidestep its protracted lead struggles if it had followed federal guidance about water treatment, according to an investigation by The Oregonian.

“In November 1997, state officials approved a one-of-a-kind deal that let Portland ignore rules other cities across the country had to follow. New federal guidelines would have required Portland to add chemicals to its water to minimize pipe corrosion and the release of lead,” the report said, referring to updates in the federal Lead and Copper Rule.

Portland wagered two decades ago that it could save money and still make strides toward fighting health risks by focusing its lead-reduction efforts on paint rather than water, the report said.

“That decision affected not only schools but also thousands of homes, apartments and offices across the region connected to Portland's water supply,” the report said.

“Now 19 years later, it's impossible to say whether Portland's workaround has lived up to its promise. [The Oregonian] commissioned independent testing of lead in homes and reviewed hundreds of pages of documents that suggest, in many cases, the program has fallen short of its goals,” the report said.

The newspaper’s take: Portland may have been able to avoid its lead woes if it had followed different policies.

“At any point since 1997, Portland could have built a water treatment plant to minimize lead while still pursuing the rest of its reduction plan. One estimate pegged construction costs at just $3 million. Instead, as other water systems sharply brought down lead levels, Portland became an outlier,” the report said.

Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech engineering professor who was among the first to call out the lead crisis in Flint, MI, said Portland could have adjusted its treatment processes to address lead in a more effective way. He said the scope and severity of Portland’s lead problems would have been "dramatically lower" with stronger treatment, the report said.

"It's frankly kind of scapegoating," Edwards said, per The Oregonian. "Why are these school officials taking the brunt of the blame here when the city utility and the state essentially failed to follow the law?"

How bad are Portland’s lead challenges?

“Lead levels in Portland's high-risk homes test the highest among the nation's largest water providers. Portland has exceeded the federal ‘action level’ eight times since 1997, most recently in 2013,” the report said.

“And tests this summer found lead-tainted water in virtually every Portland Public Schools building,” the report said. The incident prompted high-profile resignations, according to a previous report in The Oregonian.

U.S. EPA officials told the city in April that its lead levels are too high, according to a previous report in The Oregonian.

"EPA was very clear that current lead levels at the tap aren't good enough, and they expect Portland’s schedule for implementing optimized corrosion control to be aggressively timed," said a note from a meeting of state regulators.

For similar stories visit Water Online Drinking Water Regulations And Legislation Solutions Center.

Image credit: "portland ore," michael silberstein © 2010, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: