Overcoming the challenge of exchanging lead service lines

Passing of the historic Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) of October 2021 will provide states with $15 billion to fund lead service line replacement — the most funds the federal government has ever put into this work Has. States and water systems across the country are preparing to implement it.

Background information on Lead Service Lines and the damage they cause

A utility line is a pipe that runs from a water main on the street to a dwelling or other structure.

Image of Lead Service Line Replacement Collaborative (NRDC is a member)

Many service lines contain lead; this lead can leach out and flake off into drinking water. Lead is a toxic heavy metal that can cause a number of health and behavioral problems, particularly in children. The CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the World Health Organization all state that there is no safe exposure to lead.

Lead is a toxic heavy metal that can affect almost every organ and system in the human body, often irreversibly. Children and fetuses are particularly at risk. Even at very low levels that were once considered safe, lead can cause serious, irreversible damage to the developing brain and nervous systems of babies and young children. Lead can decrease a child’s cognitive abilities, cause behavioral problems and limit their ability to concentrate – which in turn affects their ability to learn at school. Lead can cross a pregnant woman’s placental barrier into the uterus and harm the fetus.

The Newark Experience

With the high stakes at stake, especially for children, it’s critical for water systems to go the whole hog when replacing lead service lines. Newark, New Jersey, did just that. After initially denying it had a line problem, defying calls for immediate action, and fighting a lawsuit NRDC had filed on behalf of local school teachers, Newark replaced all 23,000 of its known line lines. And once started, it replaced the lead connection lines in less than three years. To get there, the city passed an ordinance mandating lead pipe replacement, fully funding construction, and allowing the city to replace the lead pipe even if it could not locate the property owner to obtain approval. This was especially important in a city where more than 70 percent of residents rent and there are many absentee landlords who are difficult to find. These provisions resulted in a very successful program and easily resolved all of the funding, service line ownership and consent issues.

To help other communities, NRDC has converted Newark’s ordinance into a model ordinance for other communities to consider as they begin their strategy to get their lead pipes out of the ground.

Appointment of exchange of Lead Service Lines

Newark’s program is simple and straightforward. All property owners have been urged to replace their plumbing lines. They could do this by (1) hiring a contractor to do the work (at their own expense) or (2) enlisting the city’s free replacement program. When the landowners used the city’s exchange program, the city paid for it. This mandatory program quickly and efficiently resulted in the replacement of all leading service lines.

Unlike Newark, some water systems do not mandate replacement of lead supply lines. Instead, they have a voluntary program where residents apply to the city for the exchange (and often have to pay to exchange the privately owned portion of the service line — which often costs thousands of dollars). This is inefficient and will result in higher costs. This approach also often means that low-income homeowners and renters never replace their lead plumbing, compounding the disproportionate threats of lead exposure to low-income people and people of color. A voluntary program does not replace all leading utilities, which should be a top priority, and construction is done in an inefficient and expensive hop-slip fashion, not targeted neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block.

“Property” of Service Lines – Muddying the Waters

Some water supply systems (not Newark) claim that their responsibility for replacing a leading service depends on ownership of all or part of the service. In fact, most states and cities categorize the portion of the line that runs from the street to the curb or property line as “owned” by the city. In many cases, cities will claim that the remaining line from the curb to the home belongs to the property owner (see image above for the location of these portions of the utility line). Generally, however, the water system controls the entire supply line, and often (e.g. in Chicago) them necessary Lead utility lines are used, although the system now often attempts to place the burden and cost of replacing that portion of the utility line under private property on the homeowner.

As success in Newark has shown, the concept of ownership in a mandatory program muddies the waters, distracting and distracting from the issue that needs to be addressed – the removal of all leading service lines. For example, and prior to passage of the IIJA, New York City, which does not currently have a mandatory program, assumes no responsibility for the vast majority of leading service lines. According to the DEP LSL FAQ website, “New York City’s water supply lines are owned by the individual property owners, from the water line on the street to the meter in the house.” identified in their 2021 inventory is only committed to replacing 194 LSLs, or just 0.14%, on municipal lots and not the other 137,535, or 99.86%, which are privately owned.

Additionally, replacing just a portion of a lead plumbing—the portion that a city claims its own—would result in a partial replacement of lead plumbing, which can actually increase the amount of lead entering drinking water. An NRDC expert, Cyndi Roper, has previously written about the hidden costs and dangers of partial replacement. The construction process itself can dissolve the lead in the part that is not replaced, causing even more lead to enter drinking water. Additionally, if the pipe is fused to another material such as copper, the two dissimilar metals can initiate a chemical reaction called galvanic corrosion, which can lead to further corrosion of the pipe, increasing the risk of lead-contaminated drinking water. In fact, both the EPA guidelines on the use of IIJA funding and the Treasury Department rules on the use of American Rescue Plan Act funding prohibit partial lead service line replacement funding for these reasons. Congress also banned funding for partial replacement of lead supply lines under the EPA grant program to reduce lead in drinking water.

consent of the property owner or user; occupancy certificate

And Newark built in other helpful safeguards that ensured the success of the program. One was to give residents, not just the property owner, permission to replace the service line. Newark has many absentee landlords; Giving residents the option to consent to the exchange was very innovative and effective. Newark also requires a property owner to provide a certificate of occupancy that includes service line replacement upon sale or transfer of ownership of the structure.

Enforcement Provisions – Improvement of the Newark Ordinance

Newark also built in fines, jail time and community service for a property owner’s refusal to replace a leading service line. In our view, while these enforcement options are well intentioned, they are too harsh and unnecessary. A better way to address non-compliance, and one that we have included in the model ordinance, is to allow water shut-offs when an owner or occupant refuses access to the property for utility line replacement. A failure to replace the lead service line should also be recorded in the property records.

Overcoming all these challenges will result in a successful replacement of all leading service lines. Cities and states that are doing this are acknowledging the public health crisis spearheading existing lines of service. Generations of children have not and will not reach their full potential because of lead poisoning, particularly in black and brown communities. We now have an opportunity to take big steps forward with IIJA funding to stop this. Cities and states must assert their political will. A crisis that is hitting our children and communities so hard needs solutions, not excuses.

We need more water systems to adopt Newark’s “can-do” approach to replacing lead supply lines. Passing a similar ordinance mandating the replacement of lead supply lines, allowing residents to consent to the replacement, and providing other incentives will allow communities to truly get the lead out of their waters.

Focused on the public health crisis, Newark provided the replacements. Other water systems can follow Newark’s very successful path.

About Ellen Lewandowski

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