BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — The water crisis in Flint, Michigan led News 4 Investigates to start asking questions about the water treatment and testing process in Western New York. Do our old water lines and older homes make us vulnerable? Experts say, in na ideal scenario, they shouldn’t.
Ask any parent, and they’ll quickly tell you. Lead is a major concern.
Nikki Goldfus and her boys drink the water from their 1907 East Aurora home.
“I think it tastes fine, but we do have a filter on our refrigerator that we usually gravitate toward. I’m not really sure what that filters out and what it doesn’t,” she admitted.
Goldfus says she’s seen the effects of lead contamination before.
“I worked at a school a couple years ago, and we had a gentleman who was high school-aged. He had been exposed to lead and was having developmental issues,” she recalled.
In Flint, a supply switch from the Detroit Water system to the Flint River caused lead to leach from old pipes.
MORE ON CRISIS | Congress grills Michigan officials
In Williamsville, Carol and Don Siwek don’t risk drinking the village water.
“I don’t use it for anything that my food is cooked in or anything I drink,” Carol told News 4.
The couple recently relocated to Williamsville from South Wales. Carol thinks the water has a metallic taste.
Don admits, “It’s annoying to have to go out and buy water for every use that you want.”
Maintaining the lifeline
“There are very few elements that are more basic than water,” Earl Jann, chair of the board of commissioners for Erie County Water Authority, told News 4. The ECWA supplies water for most of the suburbs.
For his team safety is paramount.
“It’s absolutely our number one concern. We test the water 1,500 times per month out in the system.”
That may mean workers showing up at your door to test your tap.
“We test especially in older homes where their pipes have been in their buildings for a long time,” Jann explained.
The Buffalo Water Authority also stands by its supply.
“We run about 3,000 tests a day. We also do testing out in our distribution system. That might be at hydrants or at taps of homeowners throughout the City of Buffalo,” chairman O.J. McFoy explained.
IN DEPTH | What’s tested?
You may have driven past the historic Col. Ward Pumping Station and wondered what’s inside. McFoy allowed us to take a tour. Five electric pumps process millions of gallons of water to the authority’s 70,000 residential and business customers. Those pumps sit in the shadow of their steam-powered predecessors. The authority has preserved them because of their historic value.
The water for Buffalo and the ECWA comes from either Lake Erie or the Niagara River.
The city’s primary source comes from an intake known as the “Emerald Channel.” It’s located about a mile from the plant, directly in the lake.
“It’s one of the best in the Great Lakes, if not the best,” Public Works Commissioner Steve Stepniak proclaimed.
Stepniak says workers do a lot of internal and external testing to hunt for problems before they develop.
“We check all source points, including households.” He described it as “….rigorous and consistent testing” and pointed to the city’s most recent water quality report.
So what gets added during treatment? Chlorine is used to kill bacteria. Fluoride helps prevent tooth decay. Phosphates or Caustic Soda helps protect aging pipes.
“There’s naturally occurring calcium in the lake water, as well as in the river, and what happens then is that calcium comes out of the water and that’s what coats the inside of the pipes,” Jann Explained. The ECWA uses Caustic Soda to create the coating. The city prefers phosphates. Experts insist both have the same result.
IN DEPTH | The treatment process detailed
“It’s done intentionally so that those older pipes are coated correctly inside,” Jann explained. The calcium may end up coating your glasses. It’s a small price to pay to avoid lead or copper contamination.
Both the city and county suppliers say they’re almost certain the Flint crisis will never happen here. The stable supply and thorough testing protect us, they suggest. Jann said, “I feel sorry for these people that are in other areas because it’s not a short-term fix.”
When News 4 Investigates asked if there was something Flint could have done differently, Jann simply said, “Yes.” He continued, “If they had monitored their water initially, they could have treated it right off the bat, and they should have been fine.”
The main supply pipes running through our neighborhoods aren’t the problem. They’re made mostly of plastic, iron and steel.
“It’s the service [line] that comes from the street to the house where you’ll find some of the older lead pipes.”
Replacing the service lines on your property would likely be your responsibility. That could cost thousands. A cheaper alternative would be to let the water run for thirty seconds before you drink or cook with it.
“If they’re really concerned, I think they should go take a sample of their water to a private testing company,” Jann suggested.
News 4 Investigates tested the Goldfus family’s tap water in East Aurora as well as the Siwek’s in Williamsville.
Both of their results were well below federal requirements.
We also tested tap water from a restroom faucet at Buffalo City Hall. It showed a slightly higher level of lead, but still, the readings were well below the 15 micrograms per liter (ug/L) allowed.
Goldfus, as a mom, believes it’s important for us to continue the conversation about our water. “It makes me wonder why I didn’t look into it sooner,” she said.
If you’re a customer of the Buffalo Water Authority, you may call 3-1-1 and inquire about the city testing your water.
The ECWA says you can always report water problems to them, but they suggest you hire an outside company for testing. Most companies charge around $50 per sample.
Here are testing options to consider.
Have a question or a specific concern about your water? Email News 4’s Jordan Williams.