Portland’s water engineers have completed a treatment facility they hope will take care of the city’s lead problem once and for all.

The drinking water from the Bull Run Watershed, a protected area near Mount Hood where Portland gets its water supply, is naturally corrosive. That’s long been a problem for Portlanders with lead in their household plumbing, who are at risk of having the toxic metal leach from the pipes into their tap water.

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The Portland Water Bureau built the Improved Corrosion Control Treatment facility to make the water supply less corrosive and protect these Portlanders from exposure to the lead in their pipes. The most at-risk homes are those built or plumbed between 1970 and 1985, an era when copper pipes with lead solder were common. The water bureau estimates there are roughly 15,000 homes from this era. The facility officially went online April 21.

Bull Run Dam

FILE: Bull Run Dam. The Bull Run watershed is the source of Portland's drinking water.

Portland Water Bureau

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“We all feel this really will put this behind us so to speak. It’ll really make it so that lead and drinking water in the vast majority of homes in our system will not be an issue,” said Scott Bradway, the bureau’s lead hazard reduction program manager. “This treatment will be a huge improvement for our system.”

The facility will treat the water with soda ash and carbon dioxide. Bradway added that he doesn’t expect Portlanders will notice a change in taste in their drinking water.

With a total project cost of $20.4 million, the water bureau has come in around their estimated budget of $20 million. The bureau received a low-cost, long-term loan to help finance the project through the federal Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act.

The facility’s completion comes five months after the Oregon Health Authority required the water bureau come up with an action plan to reduce lead in drinking water following alarming tests. In November, the city sampled 104 homes with known lead components in their plumbing and found 10% had lead levels higher than 21 parts per billion — the highest lead levels the city had seen in two decades.

The results far exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion (ppb). If more than 10% of test samples come back with lead levels higher than 15 ppb, the Environmental Protection Agency requires the utility to try to reduce the amount of lead in the water. City leaders said they would distribute free water filters and speed up the timeline for Corrosion Control Treatment facility. They aim to be at their proposed targets — alkalinity of 25 milligrams per liter and a pH of 8.5 — by the end of the summer.

The water bureau offers free lead-in-water testing to all residential customers and childcare providers. People can contact the LeadLine at leadline.org or 503-988-4000 to receive a free lead-in-water test. The water bureau is giving free water filters to anyone who has a lead level test at 10 ppb or higher.

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This past November, Portlanders got an urgent reminder that the city’s lead problem has persisted. Out of 104 homes sampled by the water bureau, 10% had lead levels higher than 21 parts per billion (or ppb) — the highest results the city has seen in two decades and well above the federal limit.