I-Team Consumer Investigation: Charleston utility takes action to protect water quality in lead pipe service lines

Charleston Water System releases a water quality report every year.

CHARLESTON, SC — The water crisis in Flint, Michigan is putting water systems around the country under the microscope.

It started three years ago when officials in flint stopped buying water from Detroit using water from the flint river instead.

When kids started testing positive for lead poisoning, scientists ran tests and found incredibly dangerous levels of the toxin in the water.

We are surrounded by water in the Lowcountry but how much thought do you give to what’s in your sinks, showers, and glasses?

News 2’s consumer investigator Libba Holland looked into what’s being done to avoid a flint-like crisis here.

Chemist Jason Thompson with Charleston Water System visited Will Kantlehner at 7:30 in the morning to test his water on Bull Street in Downtown Charleston.

“We’re going to go ahead and go to the cold water side … stick the bottle underneath the tap fill it up,” Thompson said.

We take the “Absolute First Draw.” That means the college students who rent this place haven’t used any water for 6 to 8 hours.

“The important thing is that it is a worst case scenario. So, the longer it’s in contact with the pipes the lead and copper the higher potentially you can have leaching of lead,” said Thompson.

“That’s part of the reason I came to Charleston because it’s a beautiful city with a great water scene,” said Kantlehner.

Kantlehner rents the home with three roommates.

A College of Charleston senior, water quality never crossed his mind.

“I come from Louisville, Kentucky which has some of the cleanest tap water in the nation, so I just always grew up having clean tap water,” he said.

“Most water utilities are doing what they need to do by law to make sure that we don’t have these kind of problems,” said Thompson.

News2 took the water sample from the lab in Hannahan. The chemists let the sample sit for 24 hours.

In the meantime, we take a different sample that’s ready for testing to a graphite furnace. It heats up to 1800 degrees Celsius. Once it takes the sample, the heat burns the water away. The scientists are able to detect what remains and tell how much lead may be there.

To Andy Fairey, water is more than just a liquid; it’s what solidifies a community.

“If you’ve ever been to a country without water, or without clean drinking water, and watch how they live, water is essential for life, it’s essential for economic development. Think about Charleston, if we didn’t have water, we wouldn’t have fire protection,” said Fairey.

He’s the operations manager for Charleston Water System. He’s seen Charleston water at its worst.

Fairey showed News2 a piece of an old, lead service line.

When the government passed the lead and copper law in 1992, it required all utilities to test its water for lead.

When charleston did that, “we had the distinction of being the highest number in the nation,” said Fairey.

Think of all the water utilities across the entire nation.

Charleston had 211 part per billion of lead in their samples. A normal reading can have up to 15 ppb.

The utility began adding phosphoric acid to its water supply. That coated the pipes, and it prevents the lead from coming in contact with the water.

“Consequently, the lead levels began to drop as it coated the pipes, and the first draw samples fell down below the lead action limit, and it has remained there to this day,” said Fairey.

Mount Pleasant Waterworks and the Town of Summerville all meet the standards, as well.

“We watch water quality very closely. We monitor it over 150 points of the distribution system. We test the water coming into the plant, the water coming out of the plant,” said Fairey.

For Kantlehner’s case, he hopes he’s safe to continue to live in his old, downtown Charleston home.

“It’s just a nice quiet part of town. I can walk to the battery. It’s just a little over a mile. It’s just a quiet and peaceful place,” he said.

The test results came back the next day showing less than .001 milligrams per liter of lead, which meets the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Standards, and the water is safe to drink.

Charleston Water System customers can request a test for free once a year.

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