SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Pen Hollist wasn't surprised to learn that cities around the country are dealing with elevated lead levels in tap water. He helped his father build countless Utah houses prior to 1980 where lead-based plumbing fixtures were common.
"Everybody thought, 'This is great,' " Hollist said. 'Well, it's not so great.'
Today, Hollist oversees a system that delivers water to nearly 450 people in the rural mountain community of Liberty, Utah, that is one of five in the state that registered a water sample that came back with lead levels over the federal threshold at least once since the start of 2013, according to an analysis of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data by The Associated Press.
The northern Utah cities of Roy and Garland City also had elevated lead test results. The other two were a school in Monticello and a federal government test facility in Tooele.
State water officials don't think the problem is widespread in any of places where the tests were taken, said Ken Bousfield, director of Utah Division of Drinking Water.
More tests are being done in each city, and effected customers have been notified. Each water system is working with state officials to find out more and take necessary steps to remedy the problem for the homeowners.
Bousfield said public awareness and questions have peaked because of what happened in Flint, Michigan, the former auto manufacturing center where the issue exploded into a public health emergency when the city's entire water system was declared unsafe.
State officials are checking to make sure water officials around the state are testing water in high-risk, older homes rather than in newer homes less likely to have problems.
"If people look at Flint, they're going to look at their own system," Bousfield said. "We want to be able to say we're doing all we can."
Nationwide, nearly 1,400 water systems serving 3.6 million Americans have exceeded the federal lead standard at least once between Jan. 1, 2013, and Sept. 30, 2015, the AP analysis of EPA data found.
One of 10 houses tested in Liberty in 2014 had an elevated lead level, coming in just slightly above the federal limit, said Hollist, director of Liberty Pipeline Company. They notified the homeowner, an older woman who was recently widowed, he said.
After consulting with state water officials, they think the elevated lead was caused by an incorrect testing method. They didn't flush the water before letting it sit and then take a sample, he said.
The best solution is replacing lead-based plumbing, but that is costly and a major undertaking. Other suggestions include running water for 30 seconds to flush lead, buying water filters or using bottled water.
"There is no magic wand that all of sudden it's solved," Bousfield said.
Liberty must now test 20 homes every six months until all tests come back clean, he said. Hollist said they're focusing on older homes. They've also had engineers test wells or springs where their water comes from to make sure that's not the source. Those tests came back negative.
"Our objective is to protect and warn those who may have a problem," Hollist said. "They are our neighbors. We have an obligation to warn them."
The city with the highest lead level in a test was Roy, Utah, where a sample came back 1.5 times the threshold level, EPA data shows.
Five of 30 samples taken in the fall of 2015 came back with elevated levels, said John Bjerregaard, an engineer with a private company that handles water issues for Roy. The five homeowners were notified immediately by phone or in person, he said.
Engineers suspect it was a sampling or testing anomaly, but they are hoping more upcoming tests will reveal more, he said. The elevated sample came from a mix of new and old homes, Bjerregaard said.
A decade worth of previous samples all came in under the limit, the data show.
"The city still has concerns," Bjerregaard said.
In Garland City, the elevated test in late 2015 came at an older house that was vacant, allowing water to sit in pipes and soak up lead, said Matt Cutler, Garand City's assistant director of public works. Subsequent tests have come back under the limit, he said.
The city notified its 830 billing customers several months later when bills went out, Cutler said. They've had several calls since then, including one person who asked to have a water test.
Like Roy, the elevated lead sample was the first in more than a decade of testing in Garland City.
At the La Sal School in Monticello, the test came back elevated because it was taken from a sink in the janitor's closet, Bousfield said.
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