New London's water contractor tested Flint water before lead crisis unfolded
The company that runs the public water system for New London and Waterford last year analyzed drinking water treatment processes used in Flint, Mich., and concluded in its report that that city was “in compliance with state and federal regulations.”
In a statement Friday, Veolia North America noted that the study it was hired to conduct in Flint did not include tests for lead and copper.
A major crisis has erupted in Flint since high lead levels were detected in the blood of more than 1,700 children tested there, attributed to high lead levels in the public drinking water supply since it switched in 2014 from a source in Lake Huron to the Flint River as a cost-cutting measure.
According to the World Health Organization, lead exposure harms brain development, lowers IQ and causes behavioral changes including reduced attention span, among other problems.
“That data (on lead levels) was not part of our scope of work,” Veolia said. “The city and state were conducting lead and copper tests separate from our scope of work, and the results of those tests were not complete during the time of our study.”
Veolia North America, the Indianapolis-based subsidiary of a multinational company, runs the water system that serves 15,000 customers in Waterford and New London.
Last February, it was hired by the city of Flint to study concerns about the chlorination process, discoloration and taste and odor issues with the public water supply there.
Flint’s drinking water had been cited for violating standards for total trihalomethanes — chemical compounds that are carcinogenic and cause other health effects — and had been drawing an increasing number of customer complaints.
In an 11-page report released last March, Veolia recommended changes in the chemicals used to treat the water and steps to limit corrosion in the aging distribution system.
After the lead contamination problem became public this past fall, it was attributed to the high levels of iron in the Flint River that were highly corrosive to the distribution system, causing lead to leach into the drinking water supply.
In its report, Veolia also advised changing filters at the treatment plant, more staff training, hiring a communications staff person to share information with the public about the water system, and the creation of citizen and technical advisory committees, among other steps.
In the report, the company praised the actions that had been taken up to that point in Flint.
“The City of Flint has made a number of good decisions regarding treatment changes that have improved water quality,” the report states.
Veolia states that its experts conducted a 160-hour assessment of the water treatment plant, distribution system, customer service and communications programs, capital plans and annual budget for the Flint system.
The company also said it conducted “on site laboratory testing and analysis” and incorporated “first-hand observations” into its conclusions.
Joe Lanzafame, director of public utilities for New London, said that Connecticut laws requiring testing of public water supplies for lead and other contaminants prevent the kind of situation that occurred in Flint from happening here.
State regulations also prohibit the use of lead in piping systems, he said.
“Our water is regularly checked for lead and copper, and we’ve never had any issues with either,” Lanzafame said.
Nine reservoirs supply the city’s water, carried by a system of cast-iron pipes with copper and plastic connections to the service lines to homes and businesses.
“Occasionally,” Lanzafame said, “we run across an old lead connection. When we find it, we replace it.”
William Gerrish, spokesman for the state Department of Public Health, confirmed that there have been no violations for excessive lead levels in the New London system for at least the last three years.
Since 1986, he added, the state has banned the use of solder with more than 0.2 percent lead in public water systems.
Barry Weiner, chairman of the city's Water and Water Pollution Control Authority, said the city has had good service from Veolia since it was hired to run the water and sewage treatment systems for the city more than eight years ago.
“I can tell you unequivocally that our water has met or exceeded all state regulations without flaw, and that we routinely test for lead,” he said. “Veolia does a superb job for us.”
Weiner said the crisis in Flint gives him greater appreciation for the city’s water supply, including its main reservoir at Lake Konomoc in Waterford.
The water is of consistently high quality, he said, with a neutral pH and not corrosive.
“We really are quite fortunate to have great water and good infrastructure, as well as a reliable company working for us,” he said.
But as the longtime chairman of the citizens’ panel that oversees the public water system, Weiner said he is very troubled by Flint's situation.
“What happened in Flint is an absolute shame,” he said. “It’s a complete and total breakdown of government and of the people entrusted to maintain the safety of their constituents. It appears it was the almighty dollar that caused officials there to look the other way and to bury the damning reports.”
Both the Water and Water Pollution Control Authority and Lanzafame, he said, are “the watchdog of the people. We respond to the people.”
“The authority takes our job very seriously and so does Veolia,” Weiner said.