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More lead found in Medford's water system

The Medford Water Commission reported Wednesday that high concentrations of lead were found in water coming out of a pipe in south Medford in March after a resident complained about dirty water.

As a result of water tests and recent findings of lead fixtures in its system, the Water Commission board approved a three-step process to determine the extent of the problem in the system.

After receiving a report of dirty water on March 15, the Water Commission conducted a test at a fire hydrant on South Pacific Highway and found lead levels exceeding 300 parts per billion. That's 20 times the EPA limit of 15 parts per billion.

Then, on May 2, lead levels exceeded 15 parts per billion at a sample station a short distance from the fire hydrant, which is normally not a location used for testing.

After thoroughly flushing the line, a third test on June 2 found lead levels well below the limits. The reason for the high lead levels hasn't been determined yet.

The Neilsen Research Corporation, which conducts testing for many agencies and individuals in the Medford area, is still in the process of completing the testing documents, which should be made available to the public in the near future.

The Water Commission also conducted an experiment to determine how much lead an 18-inch to 24-inch connector known as a pigtail introduces into the water and found levels that are higher than the limits set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. After letting water sit in the pigtail for six hours, the water was found to have leached out significant amounts of lead. Several lead pigtails have been found in Medford's system in recent years and the commission says it does not know how many more may exist in the city.

The commission had previously found elevated levels of lead at a hydrant near a city office building. In addition, commission staff members say they now run the water in the building for up to 30 minutes before using it after slightly elevated levels of copper were found last year.

Rosie Pindilli, water quality director at the Water Commission, told the board Wednesday that she’s been seeking a solution to treat Medford’s water and make it less corrosive to pipes. Medford's water is considered soft, meaning it has low concentrations of minerals such as calcium and magnesium. It also means it is more corrosive to pipes, making them more susceptible to lead and other metals leaching into the system.

“The corrosive water I’ve been concerned about is an issue I’ve wanted to bring forward for years,” Pindilli said.

Despite the potential of finding more lead and copper throughout Medford and other communities, Pindilli said tests of the water from Medford’s two sources — Big Butte Springs and the Rogue River — both continue to show that impurities are well below federal health limits.

After the Mail Tribune filed a public records request with the Water Commission last week for information on water tests, various concerns have come to light about lead components and other issues in the water system. The Water Commission has recommended that homeowners run drinking water for 30 seconds to two minutes after it has sat in the pipes for an extended period.

The board on Wednesday agreed to have staff examine meters in front of houses for attached galvanized pipes, an indicator that there could be a lead pigtail in the system leading to the main pipe in the street. Water Commission staff noted, however, that the presence of a galvanized pipe at a meters does not necessarily mean there is a lead pigtail.

Prior to discoveries of its health hazards, lead was used in pigtail connectors and other pipes because it is flexible and could be shaped to fit the needed connection. High lead levels can cause health problems, including neurological development issues for young children.

Commission staff will start to pinpoint on a map locations where the galvanized pipes are found. If the street has to be dug up, it would cost about $1,000 to determine if there is a lead connector. If a lead pigtail is found, it would cost about $6,000 to dig up the street and replace it.

The Water Commission also wants to reach out to homeowners and distribute fliers to houses where pigtails are suspected.

“I don’t want to sit still, and the educational component is important,” said Bob Strosser, a Water Commission board member.

Corrosion control could become a big topic for other water suppliers in the state and in the valley.

The Oregon Department of Health Services recently issued a number of recommendations including removal of lead pigtails, which were installed in many water systems prior to 1950. Other recommendations include additional sampling in homes, which may have old lead fixtures, and corrosion control treatment.

In Medford, the Water Commission has found that its soft water can remove a calcium buildup inside pipes, exposing the metals underneath.

The Water Commission wants to push forward with a corrosion study as well as an analysis of  Medford’s system to show where lead pipe fixtures could be found and how to deal with them.

“The study is the ultimate, and it should be done quickly,” board Chairman Leigh Johnson said.

In other actions, the Water Commission voted unanimously to hire an outside consultant to conduct an evaluation of its manager, Larry Rains.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/reporterdm.