Dan and Kathleen Kornstad were alarmed at the metallic taste of their water, and even their miniature dachshund, Gracie, refused to drink it unless it was first run through a filter.
After the Kornstads complained in March about the taste as well as sediment left in their toilet bowl to the Medford Water Commission, tests were conducted at a fire hydrant across the street on South Pacific Highway and high lead levels were discovered — a result that was never reported to the Kornstads.
“Somebody’s trying to cover their ass,” Dan Kornstad, 60, said after the Mail Tribune told him last week about a series of tests that began on March 15, including one that showed lead 20 times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency action level. “That kind of ticks me off a little bit.”
The Kornstads are among many Medford residents now questioning the quality of water coming out of their taps as the Water Commission discovers more lead pipes and launches a corrosion study to determine how much the water, considered pristine when it leaves Big Butte Springs, can pick up harmful metals from pipes along the way.
According to documents obtained by the Mail Tribune, the Kornstads' situation fits into a pattern suggesting the Medford Water Commission may have downplayed repeated warnings that lead and copper could leach into the water, and the commission's board may have been misled about the presence of lead pipes in the system.
Water Commission Manager Larry Rains told the board at its May 4 meeting, “To my knowledge we have no known lead piping that exists in our system today,” though he added he couldn’t be 100 percent certain.
On the same day, the commission's service crew discovered a lead "pigtail" (connecting pipe) on Newtown Street in west Medford. On May 27, another pigtail was found on Oakdale Avenue, and tests taken at a tap inside the house confirmed high lead levels. Water Commission records show a lead connector had been found on Oakdale Avenue before, in August 2015.
Commission Water Quality Manager Rosie Pindilli, in a May 11 memo to Rains, wrote she had "stated many times that we should not claim we have no lead lines until we prove we do not — that could become a public nightmare.”
Pindilli told Rains in the memo that despite his contention that no lead lines are in the system, the service crew has “told me over and over that there are LSLs (lead service lines) in the system, which I have relayed to you and others many times.”
Rains, in a phone interview, said he hadn’t heard of a lead pipe found in the system for about eight years, but he said he should have rephrased his statement to the board. “In retrospect, I would have qualified my definition of ‘known’,” he said.
He said he was unaware at the time he made that statement that a pipe had been found a year earlier. Rains said he had asked key staff and service crew: “Have you found any lead pigtails?"
"Nobody raised their hand," Rains said. "Nobody said anything.”
At the May 18 board meeting, Rains didn’t disclose the discovery of the lead pipe earlier that month and didn’t retract his earlier statement. He also didn’t reference the May 11 memo from Pindilli, in which she wrote that as many as a half dozen other lead lines are suspected in the system.
Rains said he wasn’t sure when the board became aware of the finding of a lead pigtail in the system.
In the past year, nine lead pigtails have been uncovered and replaced in the system, according to Water Commission records. Six have been found in the past month. In four separate tests at various spots in Medford over the past year, the commission has discovered high lead levels that surpass the EPA action level of 15 parts per billion.
Lead is particularly harmful to children and can cause neurological disorders. Lead that exceeded the federal action level has been found at a residence on Oakdale Avenue, at two locations on South Pacific Highway, at a fire hydrant at 10th and Ivy streets and at a vacant lot on West Main Street.
Pindilli, contacted by phone, said commission service crew members have told her lead pipes continued to be found in the system but the crew was instructed to replace them and not talk about them.
She said she was given a different story about the lead pipes from the service crew than the one Rains recounted.
According to emails, memos and other documents from the Water Commission, Pindilli has voiced her concern over her four years on the job that Medford’s corrosive water could leach lead, copper and other metals into the water system. In the emails, she made frequent attempts to bring the issue to the Water Commission board and urged taking steps to deal with corrosive water.
“I was frustrated that it took as long as it did for anybody to listen,” Pindilli said.
Though Medford's water is considered pristine — both Big Butte Springs and the Rogue River, where water is drawn to supplement supplies during the summer months, test within EPA limits — but the soft water, which is good for lathering up in the shower, has a tendency to leach metals elsewhere, such as those found in pipes, as it passes through.
The leaching of metals into the water can be minimized by adding chemicals, a common practice with agencies throughout the country, Pindilli said.
The Water Commission board on July 6 authorized a study that could cost about $250,000 to determine the corrosiveness of Medford's water and the extent of lead pipes and lead-soldered joints in the system.
Out of 5,000 service meters in an older area of Medford, the Water Commission already has investigated 2,216 for lead pipes so far. The commission conducted 22 exploratory holes and found six pigtails. The commission has an additional eight locations that will require further investigation.
Leigh Johnson, chairman of the Water Commission board, said the board became aware of some of these issues and the email exchanges between Pindilli and Rains about possible corrosion and lead pipes only within the past three months.
“The board was not aware of all of that until April,” Johnson said. “Communication certainly could have been better.”
The board voted July 6 to conduct a review of Rains' performance as commission manager, a position he's held since 2004, though Johnson said it was not because of the lead pipe issue. The review will include interviews with the board as well as anonymous interviews with Water Commission staff and other outside agencies.
The Water Commission in June began offering free testing inside houses if a lead connector is found. However, the commission didn’t offer to test the Kornstads’ tap water.
Rains said the Kornstads live in a mobile home park on a private system that receives water from the Water Commission.
“They’re required to do their own testing,” he said. Since it was difficult to take a sample at the master meter going into the mobile home park, the Water Commission decided to sample at the fire hydrant. Even after a purging of the line, lead levels were high. Another sample was taken at a testing station nearby. Again the lead readings were high, Rains said. More purging of the lines finally brought the lead levels down below EPA levels at both the hydrant and testing station. Fire hydrants are also exempt from regulations about using lead materials in fixtures that come in contact with water, he said.
The Kornstads were given a brief analysis of the water they found, but the metal results weren’t forwarded, Rains confirmed.
“I don’t have an answer or knowledge why he wasn’t given more,” Rains said. He referred to Pindilli for more information.
Pindilli said she could confirm the metal tests were not given to the Kornstads, who were only given results of chlorine levels, temperature, pH, conductivity and total dissolved solids.
Asked why she didn’t provide the metal tests to the Kornstads as well, Pindilli said, “I was pretty much directed not to,” referring to Rains. She said that after additional flushing of the lines, more testing indicated lead was well below action levels.
Pindilli said in the emails that she’s received numerous customer complaints related to metals in water over the last four years, and on Feb. 12, 2016, she wrote a five-page memo about her concerns to Rains:
“What triggered my investigation of the possible leaching of metals into the water was on my first day of work at MWC, after drinking the coffee made in the annex break room. It tasted terrible, and, due to my previous experience, I knew why. This was further confirmed by calls from system customers complaining about taste and odor issues, blue staining of fixtures, brown colored water and black particles in the water.”
On Aug. 3, 2015, tests in the Lausmann Annex next to City Hall showed high copper levels, and tests at a fire hydrant outside the building showed high lead levels. Since then, Water Commission employees run the tap for up to 30 minutes to flush the lines in the morning before drinking the water.
After Pindilli raised the alarms about the corrosion issue in her memo, she expressed frustration about not being able to bring the matter to the Water Commission board’s attention.
On March 1, 2016, Pindilli emailed Rains about an alert sent out by the American Water Works Association urging more transparency about lead and copper issues. “This alert further emphasizes some of our discussion yesterday about my concerns of a lack of transparency,” Pindilli wrote.
On March 14, Pindilli asked Rains whether she should provide an update to the board on lead and copper as well as a complaint about water quality issues on Forest Hills Drive.
Rains responded on March 15, “Rosie, not at this time. Just a brief report on what water quality is doing in this season of the year. Of course be prepared to answer any questions that may come up.”
On April 25, Pindilli asked Rains whether he wanted more public outreach, including working closely with spokeswomen Sara Bristol and Laura Hodnett to bring them up to speed about the corrosive water topic that was going to be discussed at an upcoming public meeting. “The more knowledge and understanding Sara has of this issue, the better she will be able to communicate with the public and interview with the media,” Pindilli wrote. “Hope you agree.”
Rains responded on April 25, “Rosie, I do not want anyone at the meeting except who was invited.”
In a phone interview, Pindilli said she had been frustrated that her issues over corrosion weren't being heeded. She said she continued to be frustrated after providing the February memo to Rains because other senior staff were conducting meetings about the corrosion issue and excluding her.
“After I gave him the memo, I never heard a peep,” she said.
Rains said it took staff some time to review Pindilli's memo and process the information. He said during the months that followed he worked to prepare something for the board’s review. An internal meeting on April 6 that included two board members reviewed the corrosion issues, Rains said.
A 1981 study found Medford water was corrosive to pipes, so it was an issue that was familiar with most people at the Water Commission, Rains said. The study, a copy of which was given to the Mail Tribune, determined the corrosive water wasn't a health threat and found it didn't appear to be damaging pipes.
Rains said he was the one who asked Pindilli to prepare the memo outlining her concerns about the leaching of lead and copper into the system. He said he asked for her thoughts on corrosion after stories broke about high lead levels found in Flint, Mich.
Pindilli said in an interview she’d been asking for a corrosion study for more than three years before she prepared the memo, and she said she remembers that her conversation with Rains about the issue had a different tone to it.
“He said, ‘I am tired of you bringing this up,'” Pindilli said. “It was like three years of bringing this forth after seeing black water, blue water and everything else in the lines. Corrosion was eating away at valves, we had stuck valves and we had broken valves.”
On Feb. 29, just after she provided the memo to Rains, Pindilli said she was called into a meeting with Rains over what she thought would be a discussion about the corrosion study. Instead, Pindilli said she was given an unexpected performance review. Unlike previous performance reviews, she said she was criticized mainly for not being a team player.
Pindilli said she was worried that Rains wouldn’t let her bring her concerns to the board.
On May 17, Pindilli sent an email to Rains about the upcoming board meeting stating, “Last month you asked me to hold off talking about lead and copper. Do you want me to talk about it tomorrow?”
Rains responded the same day that he would discuss recommendations for corrosion options in a presentation to the board. “What are you wanting to report on involving lead and copper?” he asked.
At the May 18 meeting, Pindilli described how 1,400 water systems throughout the country have exceeded federal action levels for lead. She said many large water systems have corrosion control systems in place to minimize the leaching of copper and lead into the water, but Medford does not.
“Everybody’s stressing you need to get out in front of this,” Pindilli told the board. At the meeting, Pindilli didn’t discuss her long-standing concerns about lead pipes in the system or get into details about her February memo. She also didn’t mention the lead pigtail found on May 4.
Asked why she didn't discuss the pigtail find, Pindilli said, "I would not be able to mention it. I would need approval."
Other Water Commission employees didn’t seem convinced about Pindilli’s claims.
Jim Stockton, water treatment director for the commission, disputed many of Pindilli’s concerns about corrosion in an April 6 memo distributed during an internal committee meeting.
“I wish it was not necessary, but I feel that the information on some fronts is overstated, inconclusive, circumstantial and tending to be alarmist,” Stockton wrote.
Stockton said the Water Commission hasn’t been complacent about the corrosion issue. “Every WQ (water quality) staff member has known that the water could be corrosive for many years," he wrote.
But Stockton wondered whether any changes were warranted and would need to be weighed against health-related or economic considerations.
In his memo, Stockton said he couldn’t find a record of numerous customer complaints cited by Pindilli related to metals leaching into the drinking water. His own analysis concluded that complaints about discolored water amounted to only about a half a call a month.
He also said the Water Commission’s position was to remove lead service lines as they were discovered.
Despite not being persuaded by Pindelli’s assertions, Stockton said he would support a professional evaluation of corrosion issues, particularly because the 1981 study on that issue was outdated.
Pindilli also has urged a more frequent flushing program at fire hydrants. Throughout the system, water sits in dead-end pipes for months at a time. When the fire hydrant is opened, a stream of rusty water spews out, according to photos obtained from the commission.
Metals leaching into the system have had other consequences as well.
On April 6, Mark Warwick, managing engineer at the Regional Water Reclamation Facility, found that even though 60 to 70 percent of the copper is removed from wastewater, copper levels remain close to the maximum allowed to protect aquatic life in the Rogue River.
“In 2014 the city submitted monitoring data to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and they found that copper has a reasonable potential to violate water quality standards,” Warwick stated.
On April 7, Warwick said, “We have been trying to raise the red flag here for over two years that we need to be looking at this.”
In Stockton’s memo, though, he stated that concerns about copper levels at the wastewater plant relate to sensitivity about future regulations that will be set by DEQ in the next few years.
Pindilli, who said the copper levels at the wastewater plant are high because of the leaching from pipes in Medford, said new regulations for the amount of copper that can flow out of the treatment plant will be issued in 2017. She said high copper levels are harmful to fish.
She said she has been pushing for corrosion treatment that would minimize the amount of lead, copper and other metals leaching into the system. Pindilli said many other water agencies, including one she worked at previously, had corrosion control treatment in place.
“It stabilizes the water so it won’t attack the lines that it comes in contact with,” she said. “We would combat all this by treating the water.”
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.