Fresno Residents Sue Over Pipe Corrosion

MONDAY, MAY 22, 2017

A second group of citizens has filed suit against the City of Fresno, California, alleging that the local government did not protect them from corrosion and the leaching of lead and other contaminants into their drinking water.

The new suit was filed Wednesday (May 17) by eight Fresno homeowners, and was presented as a class action representing all residents of Northeast Fresno, where the water supply comes from the city’s Northeast Surface Water Treatment Facility.

The defendants named are: The City of Fresno, Vulcan Construction and Maintenance, Vulcan Measurement Control Systems and potential “Does” to be named later. Vulcan designed and installed water meters for the city on a contract issued in 2010.

The complaint alleges that the city, “rather than protecting its residents from the dangers of lead in its drinking water, actively promoted, designed and approved changes to its water supply systems that it knew would likely lead to the risk of corrosion and leaching of metals in its piping.”

Pipe Controversy

The controversy in Fresno stems from a change the city made in its water supply in 2004. When it opened the Northeast Surface Water Treatment Facility that year, it began incorporating surface water in addition to the groundwater it had previously used in the area. Many residents of Northeast Fresno began experiencing discoloration and other issues with their drinking water in subsequent years.

Experts have said that the surface water may be more corrosive than the groundwater that was previously used, especially to galvanized piping in residents’ homes. When galvanized steel pipes are corroded, they can release iron and zinc, as well as lead that may have accumulated inside the pipes while lead service lines were in place in the past.

Galvanized-to-copper connection
By j.miner, CC-BY-SA via Flickr

Experts note that fitting copper and galvanized pipes together can accelerate corrosion and leaching of metals in the galvanized pipe.

A study released  in 2015, conducted by Virginia Tech researchers Brandi Clark, Sheldon Vaughn Masters and Marc Edwards, showed that galvanized pipe itself can also be a source of lead. "The concentration of lead in the original zinc coating can range from nondetect to nearly 2 percent, dependent on the manufacturer and fitting type," the report says. The researchers note that copper fittings upstream of the galvanized pipe can exacerbate leaching.

Fresno’s city council voted last August to ban galvanized pipes in new installations in the city.

Suit Details

According to the new lawsuit, testing done by consultants brought in by the City of Fresno in 2016 “revealed corrosive damage to Plaintiffs’ plumbing and the presence of lead, iron, and other toxic contaminants at levels in excess of allowable limits in the drinking water supplied to them by the City.”

The Environmental Protection Agency’s action level for lead in drinking water is 0.015 milligrams per liter, or 15 parts per billion.

The suit claims that the city ignored water-testing, reporting and notification requirements mandated by the EPA and the State of California when it switched the area’s water supply, and “took a calculated risk that damage might occur” in the homes of residents with galvanized pipes.

The suit alleges that a 1998 study performed by HDR Engineering indicated to the city that the plan for the new water treatment plant could lead to corrosion in homes with galvanized pipe.

Vulcan, the water-meter firm, is named in the suit because the plaintiffs claim the company’s “negligent installation of pipe connections” between the water supply and residents’ homes caused corrosion and the leaching of lead and other toxic metals into the residents’ drinking water.

City’s Report: Other Causes for Corrosion

The city, in a report issued last fall, argues that “despite the City’s best efforts to reduce the corrosiveness” of the water supply, corrosion in plumbing systems and fixtures “can be caused by other factors.”

Fresno lead map
City of Fresno

A July report showed that 40 homes in Northeast Fresno showed lead above the action level in water coming out of at least one faucet.

The city cites as factors in corrosion and high lead levels:

  • Insufficient galvanized coating on residential galvanized pipes;
  • Locations where brass or copper fittings are joined to galvanized pipe;
  • The presence of corrosive soils;
  • Grounding of residential electrical systems to plumbing; and
  • The use of water-softening systems.

All of these factors can lead to corrosion and leaching in water pipes, and the city says all were observed in homes in the affected area of Northeast Fresno.

A July report showed that 40 homes in Northeast Fresno showed lead above the action level in water coming out of at least one faucet.

Other Suit

The suit is the second to be filed in relation to Northeast Fresno’s water issues; one filed last fall represents three households in the area. Attorneys told the Fresno Bee that it’s likely the two suits will eventually be merged into one.


Tagged categories: Corrosion; Galvanized steel; Government; Health & Safety; Lawsuits; Lead; North America; potable water

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