A decade-old controversy over a Westerly water tower’s lead paint has led to a study that recommends changes in how state agencies take soil samples when checking for lead contamination.
The study, conducted by scientists from Brown University and the University of Rhode Island, indicated that soil contaminated with lead paint can be mislabeled as lead-free 13 percent of the time when only surface soil is tested. The state Department of Health tests surface soils. Department of Environmental Management protocols, however, use deep soil testing and were able to identify contaminated properties that could be missed using only surface testing.
The controversy, as described in the study, began in September 2003 when town officials announced that they would be replacing the 70-year-old water tower on Winnapaug Road. According to state regulations, the process required the town to investigate whether the land around the tower had any lead contamination. In Rhode Island, water towers were covered in lead paint up until 1978. The town learned of the contaminated soil in January, but residents weren’t told until a few months later. Some residents were upset, saying they feared for the health of their families and the value of their properties.
“The relationship between town officials and the residents quickly became adversarial,” the study authors wrote.
Later that year, similar problems were discovered near the Tower Street water tank. That contamination likely occurred when the tank, and its lead-based paint, was sandblasted in 1986, according to John Pratt, who was the town engineer.
Months of testing and remediation followed, and residents questioned the state’s testing procedures. The study authors noted that the contaminated soil surrounding the Winnapaug Road tank had been removed by 2007. In 2008, the town bought a portion of one neighboring property and paid damages to another. The authors referenced a 2009 article in The Westerly Sun reporting that negotiations with property owners and remediation work were still ongoing. By July 2012, a final report was submitted to the DEM.
The two departments involved, the Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Management, used differenct methods of soil analysis. This study was an attempt to resolve this inconsistency.
The study authors, Marcella Remer Thompson, Andrea Burdon, and Kim Boekelheide, looked at soil samples from 31 residential properties adjacent to six different water towers in Rhode Island, and had access to data from 498 soil core samples. They found that sampling only surface soil could miss contamination deeper in the ground.
Although they wrote that additional study was needed, they suggested that the state change the Department of Health soil-sampling regulations, and standardize its testing methods across agencies. Although the health department’s regulations were created using scientific research, the results didn’t hold up in practice, they wrote.
The study, “Practice-based evidence informs environmental health policy and regulation: A case study of residential lead-soil contamination in Rhode Island,” was published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.
The authors cited articles in The Westerly Sun by reporters Gloria Russell and Emily DuPuis as part of the case study.