An investigation by The Guardian found Buffalo was among at least 33 cities that use water testing ‘cheats’ over lead concerns.
The Guardian found at least 33 cities in 17 states that used these ‘cheats’ and of those, 21 cities “used the same water testing methods that prompted criminal charges against three government employees in Flint over their role in one of the worst public health disasters in US history."
The newspaper began its investigation after news of the crisis in Flint, Michigan broke. Its investigative team reviewed thousands of documents and found that Buffalo was among the 33 cities that “used testing methods over the past decade that could underestimate lead found in drinking water.”
According to The Guardian, city water departments typically ask residents to collect water samples. The testing method is determined by the Environmental Protection Agency, which does not recommend “pre-flushing,” where the water is run before the testing period; the removal of “aerators,” which is a faucet filter; or to run the water slowly to fill sample bottles.
"While they all sound technical, and maybe even innocuous, scientists think they're problematic," said Jessica Glenza, one of the reporters who worked on The Guardian story.
"We're not saying that everywhere is Flint, we're just saying that after Flint it's important for utilities to be doing the best job they can to test for lead," said Glenza. "Scientists say that the best job does not include these methods that are being used."
James Jensen, a Professor of Environmental Engineering at the University at Buffalo says regulations for testing lead in water has changed many times, and continues to evolve since the Flint crisis.
"If you start from when the regulations were first written, I think people could get many different measurements of how much lead is in the water, because those regulations were so broadly written," he said. "There's uncertainty and there always will be, and what we're seeing now after Flint is the EPA giving people more and more details to try to be as certain as possible."
The Guardian says, “The EPA reiterated in February that these lead-reducing methods go against its guidelines, and the Flint charges show they may now be criminal acts.”
According to a document from the EPA obtained by 7 Eyewitness News, the EPA sent out a memorandum on the “Lead and Copper Rule” in February 2016 to Water Division Directors. The Leader and Copper Rule dictates how water samples are collected.
The memorandum specifically says that on October 2006, it issued a memorandum saying removing or cleaning aerators should not be recommended prior to water testing. The memorandum also says pre-flushing is not recommended.
As for slowly filling water bottles for testing, the EPA recommended wide-mouth bottles in its memorandum, saying this will prevent slow filling that may be seen with narrow-necked bottles.
The EPA also sent a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo and the State Health Commissioner in February 2016 reinforcing these recommendations. The agency says it sent out the memorandum “to better reflect the state of knowledge about the fate and transport of lead in distribution systems.”
However, according to The Guard, in Buffalo residents were instructed to do all three of those lead-reducing methods. The city says it intends to change protocols when they next test, according to The Guardian.
According to Glenza, Buffalo officials told The Guardian that they moved away from these methods in April 2016, two months after the EPA sent the reinforcement letter and nine years after the EPA first recommended that the aerators, or faucet filters, not be removed before the tests.
Buffalo Water released a statement regarding the report in The Guardian, saying:
“Buffalo Water has been in compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule since the inception of the program in the 1990s. We believe our drinking water is extremely safe. The source is non-corrosive and we have additional protections in place that include a corrosion inhibitor.”
“We continue to meet the Health Department standards for our Lead and Copper testing.”
7 Eyewitness News reached out to City of Buffalo officials about lead levels in the water and the testing method used to determine those levels. The city has since sent this "Sampling Form" that lists the guidelines you should follow.