PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – The Portland Water Bureau is taking action after it received a letter from the Oregon Health Authority in December saying it was “very concerned” about recent high levels of lead detected in water in some Portland homes. 

The letter, which was first reported by Oregon Public Broadcasting, said test results received Nov. 30 showed two sampled homes had lead levels more than five times the Environmental Protection Agency’s legal threshold, which is 15 parts per billion. OHA asked Portland Water Bureau to take short-term actions to protect residents in impacted homes. 

“We are concerned with the high levels and so we are taking steps that we feel are necessary and asking Portland to take real actions to reduce lead exposure to their customers,” Kari Salis, technical manager for the Oregon Health Authority Drinking Water Service, told KOIN 6 News in an interview.

Salis, who wrote the letter to Portland Water Bureau, told KOIN 6 News since then, the bureau has taken action. 

Portland Water Bureau was already in the process of completing an improved corrosion control treatment facility and plans to have it operating by April 30, 2022. The Bureau says this facility will be a permanent fix. It will adjust alkalinity and pH in the Bull Run Reservoir water to neutralize its corrosive properties. The initial goal will be to reach a target pH of 8.6. 

In the meantime, the bureau developed a short-term plan to respond to the November lead action level exceedance. The bureau will temporarily increase pH levels in the water to neutralize the corrosiveness of the water, expand outreach and education programs to increase awareness of lead risk in impacted homes, inform more people of the free lead testing program, and work to accelerate the implementation of its corrosion control facility. 

Salis said OHA also asked Portland Water Bureau to expand its filter provision program. The bureau said it has begun offering filters to customers whose lead-in-water test results are above 10 ppb. The bureau is continuing to work on details with the OHA and the Environmental Protection Agency, which may affect the size of the program.  

Portland Water Bureau said one of the easiest things people who are concerned about lead can do is run the faucet if water has been sitting still in the pipes for a while. 

“When you wake up in the morning before you make that cup of coffee, run your tap for 30 seconds to a minute until that water’s nice and cold,” Scott Bradway, the water quality information program manager at Portland Water Bureau, said. “Same thing when you come home from work or school, before making dinner, flush your taps.” 

Click here to request a kit testing your water for lead

Salis sent a follow-up letter to Portland Water Bureau on Jan. 10 saying the actions the bureau is taking are “reasonable and appropriate to reduce risk of lead exposure to Portland Water Bureau customers.” 

Portland Water Bureau follows the legal requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act, which requires water providers to test homes built between 1983 and 1985 regularly for lead. Portland Water Bureau tests every six months. These homes are at particular risk of lead contamination because many built during that time have copper pipes and lead solder. When corrosive water, like what comes out of the Bull Run Reservoir, meets these materials, it can cause lead from the fixtures to leech into people’s homes. 

Bradway said less than 10% of the homes Portland Water Bureau serves have copper pipes with lead solder. Of the homes they tested built between 1983 and 1985, 13% had lead test results come back above the action level. The Environmental Protection Agency requires water providers to try and reduce the levels of lead in the water if the number of homes with concerning lead levels is above 10%. 

In the last nearly three decades, Portland Water Bureau has had 13 testing rounds come back with lead levels exceeding the federal limit. After the exceedance in 2016, the bureau decided to start building its improved corrosion control treatment facility; the one that will be completed in late April. 

The bureau is also working on building a new filtration plant for the Bull Run Reservoir, which it says will make the water less corrosive. That filtration plant is scheduled to be completed in 2027. The water that comes out of the Bull Run Reservoir is naturally corrosive.

Bradway said the bureau is currently looking at ways it can get the corrosion control treatment facility online sooner than April 30. He said the bureau plans to do the next round of testing before the new facility begins operations. The test after that, in fall 2022, will determine the effectiveness of the treatment facility. 

KOIN 6 News asked both OHA and Portland Water Bureau if the city’s lead concerns were comparable to those in Flint, Michigan. Salis from OHA said they are not because the state banned the use of lead in drinking water systems in 1985. Portland Water Bureau said the city has never had lead service lines, just copper pipes with lead solder used in individual homes. What was banned in 1985 was the use of copper pipes with lead solder in home plumbing.

Portland Water Bureau has a document with responses to frequently asked questions about lead available online

Editor’s note: Portland Water Bureau clarified 13% of tests results came back above the action level for lead in water after previously saying 10% in an interview with KOIN 6 News. They also clarified Portland never had lead service lines. Portland Water Bureau is also only offering filters to homes with elevated levels of lead in their water moving forward.