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Failure to test water widespread

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe

Agency: 1,001 Texas suppliers didn’t test for lead, copper in ’15

Denton wasn’t the only one to bust the deadline last summer.

Of the 2,245 Texas public water suppliers that were supposed to test for lead and copper in their systems last year, 1,001 failed to do so, according to officials at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

The state agency made a small change in the testing protocol. But apparently the change was big enough to trigger a huge failure to test by public water suppliers all around the state. In the final analysis, local, state and federal officials don’t have current data required on lead and copper levels for about 1 in 7 of the state’s 6,916 public water systems.

The failure to test in Texas comes as national news outlets follow ongoing problems with lead and copper contamination in Flint, Michigan. State officials changed the source of the city’s water supply and since then unhealthy levels of copper and lead have leached from old pipes into Flint’s water supply.

Lead in drinking water can harm the brain, kidneys and red blood cells. Lead can be particularly harmful to women who are pregnant and young children because of the damage it can cause to brain cells.

Copper in drinking water can distress the stomach and intestines, damage the liver or kidneys and complicate Wilson’s disease, an inherited disorder in which excessive amounts of copper accumulate in the body.

TCEQ spokesman Terry Clawson said the agency made the change at the request of the state’s water suppliers.

“They wanted the option to ‘shop around’ for cost savings by choosing their labs,” Clawson wrote in an email.

In January 2014, TCEQ sent letters to Denton and other public water suppliers notifying them to test for lead and copper in the summer of 2015. Typically, testing occurs in summer because warmer temperatures increase the risk of lead and copper leaching from old pipes.

Fritz Schwalm, the longtime manager of the laboratory for Denton Water Utilities, said the state’s letter came in plenty of time. But it was also the first time public water suppliers could use the lab of their choice, as long as it was certified.

In other words, the state laboratory would not be automatically sending out sampling kits. Getting those kits is the water suppliers’ job. And the sampling still needed to be finished before the end of summer.

Denton city employees accepted responsibility for their failure to react to the change, Schwalm said. He has since drafted procedures to make sure the city has what it needs to complete the job on time.

Denton was among nearly 45 percent of Texas public water suppliers that didn’t test for lead and copper this summer. In 2013, about 13 percent failed to test. In 2014, about 22 percent failed to test, according to state records.

Denton utility customers opened their January water bill to see the notice about the testing failure. The notice included testing results for the past three periods. (Because of the low risk, Denton is required to test every three years.)

The maximum level of lead allowed in drinking water is 0.015 parts per million. Denton had 0.00168 ppm in 2012. The maximum level of copper allowed in drinking water is 1.3 ppm. Denton had 0.456 ppm in 2012.

For Denton, missing that testing deadline doesn’t mean the risk for lead or copper in the water has increased. The risk has been considered low since 1993, based on previous testing results and the way the city treats the water.

The city gets its water from Ray Roberts Lake and Lewisville Lake. The city hasn’t changed how it treats the water — it’s slightly alkaline, which minimizes leaching from pipes. But the city won’t be certain lead and copper levels have remained low until it is able to gather samples next summer.

That’s likely the case for many other public water supplies that get their water from Texas lakes. The water from Texas lakes tends to be alkaline and that limits the leaching problem, Schwalm said.

TCEQ works to make sure all the public water systems operate successfully, including contracting with experts who can visit and provide help with financial, managerial or technical problems, and specifically with lead and copper testing, Clawson said. The agency had several workshops and presentations with public water suppliers in advance of the change.

Demetria Sweatt-Phillips said she volunteered her home in Southeast Denton for testing because it is older, and located in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods.

“I grew up in Southeast Denton — we’re concerned,” Sweatt-Phillips said.

But her home isn’t the most likely candidate for trouble in Denton, Schwalm said. The city has replaced most of the known lead pipes in its system. There are some still running along Elm and Locust streets that are scheduled for replacement. That area is a priority for testing.

Denton’s oldest homes and buildings could still have lead pipes if the plumbing hasn’t been changed, but it’s not likely, he added.

Because of construction practices from about 1982 to about 1990, the highest risk for leaching comes in Denton homes built or remodeled during that time. The city includes those homes in its testing, too.

To participate in the city’s lead and copper testing next summer, call Schwalm at 940-349-8615.

The EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline also provides information on checking your home’s water supply. The hotline is 800-426-4791.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.


A public water supplier needs the cooperation of property owners to test its system for lead and copper with integrity. Samples are collected at the tap.

Next summer, Denton employees will work with property owners and a certified lab that analyzes the samples to make sure the job gets done, according to Fritz Schwalm, longtime lab manager for Denton water utilities. The testing must be done in the summer and at homes and buildings considered the highest risk for the presence of lead or copper.

The Denton Record-Chronicle asked Schwalm for more information about the risks in Denton’s system:

Question: Does Denton water utilities have any lead pipes?

Answer: The city has been replacing lead pipes in its water delivery system and will continue to do so until they are all gone, Schwalm said. Officials estimate about 1 percent of the system is still lead pipes and they have been testing in those areas.

Water that is more corrosive (because of pH or mineral levels) can contribute to the leaching, as can warmer temperatures. Denton’s drinking water is slightly alkaline and is treated to minimize leaching.

Q: Do any Denton homes or businesses have lead pipes?

A: That’s possible, but highly unlikely, Schwalm says. Some experts caution that homes and business buildings built in the early 1900s or earlier could still have lead pipes if the plumbing system has never been updated.

Q: But don’t some Denton homes have copper pipes with lead solder?

A: Possibly. Inferior quality plumbing building materials dating from 1982 came to the U.S. markets, which have allowed lead and copper to leach into the water lines under certain conditions.

Q: To test in Denton, then, you aren’t necessarily looking for an older home in an older part of town, but a home built or remodeled between 1982 and 1991?

A: Correct. The inferior materials were discovered in the late 1980s and the Environmental Protection Agency began its lead and copper monitoring program in 1991. There is now a ban on lead in building materials, Schwalm said.

For more information, call Schwalm at 940-349-8615.