Sinkhole forms on Canal Street alongside ongoing construction, snarls traffic before temporary fix _lowres

Advocate file photo by MATTHEW HINTON--The river bound lanes of Canal Street at Rampart were closed as part of construction on Saturday, May 28, 2016. 

The massive amount of infrastructure work expected in New Orleans in coming years could shake loose lead that will find its way into water pipes, and the Sewerage & Water Board needs to do more to ensure residents are not in danger, according to a new report from the city's Office of Inspector General.

While warning against panic and saying the S&WB is starting to do a better job of alerting residents to the dangers, Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux said the issue is a matter of extreme urgency as the city embarks on an anticipated $2.4 billion in repairs to streets and underground pipes in the next eight years.

Lead is a dangerous neurotoxin, and no level of lead exposure is considered to be safe.

“I think it’s extremely serious, the most serious thing we’ve reported on,” Quatrevaux said Tuesday of the potential dangers when construction occurs near lead pipes.

Even when the pipes are not directly affected, the report says, vibrations can loosen deposits that can raise lead levels in the water supply to homes and businesses.

The Inspector General's Office did not do any testing as part of the report.

The report says lead service lines carry water from the water main in the street to individual properties, and many of the planned street and pipe projects include the partial replacement of those lead lines, which are the main contributor of lead in drinking water at the tap.

Partial replacement of the lead lines may elevate the risk of exposure to lead in drinking water for weeks or months, the report says. However, it says, any infrastructure work can also cause spikes in lead levels at the tap.

The S&WB does not have complete or accurate records of locations of lead service lines, the report says, and many older New Orleans homes may be serviced by such lines.

In an interview Tuesday, S&WB officials said the city’s water system is safe and that they already provide notifications in water bills and through more proactive measures when work involves water lines that may be made of lead. In addition, they noted the agency adheres to water quality testing requirements.

But, they acknowledged, dealing with lead is an “evolving process.”

“The more we learn, the more we do,” board spokeswoman Lisa Martin said.

The S&WB said it provides notification 45 days before any planned work that will involve water lines that could be made of lead, including providing written notifications, door hangers and inspections.

The agency also removes any lead lines under public property.

But Quatrevaux said there should be more outreach to ensure residents are informed of the potential dangers and that the notification program should also encompass work that does not directly impact the water lines.

“The initial steps are good ones, but there’s a lot more to be done,” he said.

The OIG report, quoting the Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board, says the contamination that results when lead gets into water pipes can linger for months in some cases.

More than 400 miles of roadways will be affected by construction over the next eight years as crews perform FEMA-funded repairs of streets and pipes.

The OIG report says residents should be instructed to shut off their water before infrastructure work begins nearby and to flush out the system using a tap between the lines and the homes’ internal plumbing to prevent lead from getting into the system. That should be followed by removing the aerators from faucets in the home and flushing them for 30 minutes, according to the report.

In addition, the report suggests that the S&WB look into providing residents with water filtration kits certified to remove lead.

A further problem arises from the fact that the S&WB owns the pipes only under publicly owned areas, while the pipes on private property are the responsibility of the property owners. That means that even after infrastructure work is complete on a street, lead pipes could be left behind on private property.

The report recommends the S&WB look into ways to encourage residents to have their private lines replaced, possibly following the example of other cities that offer subsidies to ease the cost of that work.

The S&WB is looking at what it can do in terms of offering filters or aiding residents in replacing lead lines, but the state's constitution prohibits using public funds for private individuals, S&WB Executive Director Cedric Grant said. Grant noted that Quatrevaux’s office has traditionally taken a dim view of programs that could be seen as violating that prohibition.

“We’ve got an opportunity to get out ahead of this in a way most other regions haven’t,” Grant said. “We’re committed to trying to figure out everything we can do.”

Any kind of program developed by the S&WB might require new legislation at the state level and might have to be done through partnerships with nonprofits or using proceeds the S&WB gets through the licensing of its logo or other non-public funds.

The Office of Inspector General began looking into the issue while working on a related report looking into the S&WB’s policies for testing for lead.

While the S&WB complies with Environmental Protection Agency rules for those tests, which require samples every three years from 80 addresses, some public health experts have argued that the federal regulations are too lax and that a larger number of more comprehensive tests are needed.

The report on that testing is expected later this year.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.​