We live amidst wilderness, surrounded by lakes, rivers and streams. Those waters, fed by mountain snow and plentiful rain, ought to produce pristine drinking water. Unfortunately for the residents of Saranac Lake, that is not the case. Should you drink our village tap water? Is it safe? Well, no, certainly not for everyone, and possibly not for anyone. I buy bottled water. The two drilled wells behind the village sewage treatment plant replaced McKenzie Pond as our water source in 2012. New York state’s concerns about the potential for contamination of surface water sourcing led to that expensive change. However, water quality has definitely not improved.
Two contaminants of major health concern are present in our drinking water: lead and salt. The EPA “action level” for lead has been exceeded in Saranac Lake’s municipal water supply in multiple samples tested since 2012. In 2014, the village received a notice of violation for lead. Mayor Rabideau said the water samples with the higher elevations did not come from the new wells. “They were drawn from the end of old pipes,” he told the Press-Republican. Saranac Lake had been on the wells for two years at that point. The mayor’s response seemed intended to deflect attention from the real problem. The Department of Health cited the village again for lead in 2016. In 2021, tests for lead at Petrova School and the High School also exceeded the EPA action level of .015 mg/L.
Despite the requirement of testing every three years for groundwater (aquifer) systems, the salt has only recently been tested (2019) and exceeds EPA levels as follows: “For individuals on a very low sodium diet (500 mg/day), EPA recommends that drinking-water sodium not exceed 20 mg/L. In order to avoid adverse effects on taste, EPA recommends that sodium concentrations in drinking water not exceed 30 to 60 mg/L.” We’re told our average is at 53 mg/L. The highs likely exceed 60 mg, but despite my request to the village board, we do not know the actual test results.
The explanation for this contamination is found at the intersection of infrastructure and village management. When you turn on your tap, you expect clean water to come out, then you pay your bill and assume that somehow these two things should work like clockwork. But it’s not that way. It’s a complex system that the municipality must correctly maintain and operate.
Saranac Lake’s Water Quality report from 2020 lists the source of lead as “corrosion of household plumbing systems.” That is only slightly true. Prior to an amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) in 1986, lead was widely used in all water piping, including Saranac Lake’s distribution system. So, yes, homes with plumbing installed or repaired prior to ’86 have lead, but that’s not all the lead. Every lateral (the pipe from the water main to your home) installed before the SDWA has a lead gooseneck. It’s solid lead, about two to three feet long, connecting the corporation stop on the water main to the pipe that extends to the curb stop (at the edge of your property). Lead was used for goosenecks because it was durable and easily bent for installation. These goosenecks are the major source of lead contamination in our village water system.
In your home or business, and in the village distribution system, there could be some other fittings or valves with lead content, maybe even a section of pipe. Note that old brass pipe can have lead content. But today, with many houses either built post-1986 or having had the plumbing updated, the lead goosenecks are the main problem because even where new water mains have been installed, the lead goosenecks remain.
You wonder how a water main can be replaced and the lead goosenecks stay? Here’s an example. The first renovation my wife Aggie and I did at our house was water and sewer line replacement. The village had several years prior subcontracted to install a new water main on our street. It ran right at the edge of our property. The old water main was across the street. In order to replace our old brass water line and install a new copper line, we discovered it was necessary to excavate across the entire road. That was because we were still on the old main. The subcontractor, working according to the village’s bid specification, cut our water line, adapted the old brass to copper up, over and down past the new water main and then reconnected back to the old brass. The subcontractor, in other words, did not replace the laterals.
Despite there being a new water main almost under our lawn, we were still connected to the lead gooseneck across the street. Both water mains were operating and still are, 25 years later. My neighbors are still hooked-up to lead goosenecks. We had to cap the old corporation stop before tapping the new main, all at our expense, 8 feet below the village street. This bid spec for new water mains which are installed without lateral replacement is the same for numerous water main installations done throughout the village over many years.
The village says that homeowners are responsible for the service laterals, all the way to the mains (whether water or sewer). This appears to be a way for the village to save us — the taxpayers — some money, when in reality we are paying a much higher cost both to our health, and to ultimately correct this problem of lead in the system. A recent example of this “money-saving practice” is Olive Street hill. It was dug up and completely repaved. The old laterals were left in place. At least one resident asked for their laterals to be replaced but was denied. That same summer, after the paving was complete, Olive Street was partially dug up again, for a broken lateral. Similarly, a woman on Kiwassa Road spent almost $10,000 after a village water main subcontractor used #2 and #3 stone as backfill, crushing her old clay tile sewer line. The road had been re-paved and the old laterals left in place. Kiwassa Road, in front of her house, was then excavated again, to replace her sewer line. The village denied any responsibility. More on laterals and salt to come.
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Dan Reilly lives in Saranac Lake and is a former plumbing and heating contractor.
Notice of violation, 2014: https://www.pressrepublican.com/news/local_news/lead-found-in-some-saranac-lake-water-samples/article_50a2001a-16d6-538e-80aa-e95269121833.html
EPA: Drinking Water Advisory: Consumer Acceptability Advice and Health Effects Analysis on Sodium: https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2014-09/documents/support_cc1_sodium_dwreport.pdf