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Buffalo water officials acknowledge lead test "cheats," complying with new EPA guidelines

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Local officials are responding to a British report that suggests more than two dozen U.S. cities, including Buffalo, used "cheats" while measuring water for lead levels.

In the wake of Flint, Michigan's lead-contaminated water crisis, which made international headlines, the UK-based Guardian conducted an investigation into other U.S. cities and published its findings this week. The Guardian's report suggests 33 American cities in 17 states used methods of measurement - or "cheats" as the report called them - to produce numbers that may understate lead levels.

Of those cities, 21 of them - including Buffalo - were said to utilize practices including the 'pre-flushing' of water pipes before testing a sample, removing aerators from spouts and running water slowly, which results in less lead becoming dislodged from pipes. 

Those are practices that resulted in criminal charges against three public officials in Flint, Michigan earlier this year.

The chairman of the Buffalo Water Authority, O.J. McFoy, acknowledged he was interviewed for the Guardian's report and confirmed the city previously used the tactics identified in that story. But he advised reporters Friday that in February, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency forwarded updated guidelines to cities, guidelines to which Buffalo is complying.

"When we were made aware in February of the new way of doing things, we went right to work, we actually participated in an EPA webinar, and we changed our standard operating procedures back in April," McFoy said.

With questions now raised as to the true levels of lead contamination in Buffalo's water supply, officials are planning to accelerate the testing schedule.

"Our testing is going to take place at the end of June," McFoy said. "We like to test it when our water changes temperature. That is our worst-case scenario. We're not scheduled to do testing until 2017. but we actually are going to be testing this year. We're going to get the testing out just because of the heightened scrutiny."

Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein, when asked for comment, did not address the Guardian article but did say that health officials work aggressively to identify lead hazards. 

"In our community, unfortunately, usually the source is old housing, peeling paint that has a lot of lead in it," Dr. Burstein said. 

She also identified other sources where health officials have found lead, including old glass wares and, in one unique case, in a spice that a local family was using in their food. The spice, turmeric, which is imported from southeast Asia, became the subject of a nationwide recall.

Earlier this year, Buffalo Common Councilmembers Joel Feroleto and Darius Pridgen were given a tour of the city's water treatment facility at the foot of Porter Avenue. They were assured at that time that the water supply is safe.

McFoy believes it still is and he does not anticipate a spike in lead levels when the city holds its next round of tests.

"We believe we have an excellent source water," he said. "We couple that with the inclusion of some corrosion inhibitors. We've continued to maintain that we've done an excellent job in our tests."

Waverly Colville contributed to this report.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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