Augusta disputes allegation about testing for lead in drinking water

Augusta's utilities director said Monday that his agency properly tests for lead in drinking water after a newspaper reported that the east Georgia city, and 32 others, "cheats" to avoid reporting potentially dangerous levels of lead.

The Guardian, a British paper with bureaus in the United States, said Augusta water testers were told to run tap water slowly, which causes less lead to be dislodged from pipes. The paper’s investigation was prompted by the lead water crisis in Flint, Mich., where polluted river water and questionable testing procedures tainted the city’s water and endangered residents’ health.

The Guardian, citing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, said Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia, like Augusta, cheated in order to register lower levels of lead in their water systems.

Tom Wiedmeier, Augusta’s utilities director, said the city samples correctly and adheres to EPA rules. The Georgia Environmental Protection Division delivers bar-coded sample bottles to Wiedmeier’s staff, who then distribute the bottles to 100 customers. The customers are instructed to draw water first thing in the morning, when lead levels are generally higher. Augusta then returns the bottles to the EPD for testing.

Wiedemeyer read the instructions to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday: “Place the open 1-liter sample bottle below the faucet and gently turn on the cold water tap.”

Weidmeier added, “We’ve not had any lead issues.”

Augusta is soon to send out 100 sample bottles to customers. Testing was last done in 2013, per EPA guidelines. Weidmeier and EPD officials are discussing what impact The Guardian report will have on sampling.

“We are confident the city is in compliance with EPA water sampling requirements,” said Jac Capp, the chief of watershed protection for the EPD. “Until and if we see evidence that says otherwise, there is no cause for further investigation.”

The Guardian said water utilities can avoid detecting lead by asking testers to run faucets before the test period, known as “pre-flushing”; remove faucet filters called “aerators”; or slowly fill sample bottles.