How are small municipalities tackling the lead service line dilemma?

By Olya Egorov, Water Policy Intern

The EPA estimates that there are 6-10 million lead service lines currently in use by households across the United States. Although lead mitigation strategies can and are being adopted by water utilities, public health advocates have consistently argued that lead service line replacement, the digging up and replacement of lead lines, is the most effective action that can be taken against the threat of lead in drinking water. To date, there is a limited number of cities that have completely removed all lead service lines (the public and private components), including mid-sized cities like Lansing, MI and Madison, WI, and more recently, Green Bay, WI. There are few small towns (populations under 30,000), if any, that have fully replaced their lead service lines. In a series of interviews with three municipalities, I sought to understand what makes a lead service line replacement program successful and effective. 

First stop: Platteville, Wisconsin (population: 12,264) 

The City of Platteville was a booming lead mining city until the 1960s; nearly all service lines, from the main to the curb stop to the home, were made of lead. After the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) launched a Private Lead Service Line Replacement Program in 2016, Platteville applied for approximately half a million dollars, provided by the DNR as principal forgiveness. 

Platteville began developing an inventory of known lead service lines after receiving funding. The inventory process identified approximately 350 lead service lines. After further investigation, an additional 200 lead service lines were discovered, totaling to roughly 595 known lead service lines and about two dozen unknown lines. The city posted qualifications for plumbers, and eventually secured and distributed a list of five pre-qualified plumbers for residents to use, along with information about the program. 

Platteville decided to fund up to $1,140 per private lead service line, covering approximately 75 percent of the costs. In some cases, the grant covered the cost of replacement in full. The Wisconsin DNR also allocated funding directly for the replacement of lead service lines in licensed schools and daycare centers. Platteville received some of this funding and covered the cost in full for three local daycare centers. 

Howard B. Crofoot, Platteville’s Public Works Director, noted that the success of this program was largely due to the reliable, trustworthy plumbers that gave fair estimates of replacement costs. He referred to the plumbers as the “local champions.” To date, 444 lead service lines have been dug up and replaced. He did not note any extensive problems or barriers that the city encountered, except perhaps limited funding. 

Next stop: Eau Claire, Wisconsin (population: 68,187) 

Eau Claire received their first grant from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in 2017 for half a million dollars. The city identified approximately 900 lead service lines belonging to the customers. After receiving grant funding, the city issued an ordinance requesting that all encountered lead service lines be replaced, public and private included, with the goal of becoming ‘lead free’ within a decade. This ordinance also served to act as a precaution to replace any disturbed service lines in areas nearby construction zones. The city allocated $2,000 per private lead service line, covering a little more than half of the line (most service lines cost $2,600 to replace in Eau Claire). Hydro Designs, a Wisconsin-based graphic company, designed brochures and flyers for the city to distribute to residents. 

Lane Berg, Eau Claire’s Utility Manager, expressed that the city had effective communication with contractors of other engineering projects and the program’s plumbers. When another engineering project opened a road and stumbled upon a lead service line, the program’s plumbers were informed and worked with the engineers to replace the service line without having to excavate the line a second time. Mr. Berg expressed one hardship in his city: there were not enough plumbers available to replace lead service lines in rapid succession. Nonetheless, Eau Claire averaged roughly two lines a day, a considerable amount for a city of that size. To date, Eau Claire has removed and replaced roughly 260 private lead service lines. The city applied for additional funding, looking to use $800,000 to continue their program and potentially cover replacement ‘free-of-cost’ for the homeowner. 

Last stop: North Providence, Rhode Island (population: 32,559) 

North Providence has a rather unique Lead Service Line Replacement program, largely due to Mayor Charles Lombardi’s initiative to jumpstart a program from scratch after seeing the tragedy in Flint and other nearby municipalities. To date, Rhode Island does not have available statewide funding for lead service line replacement, so the Mayor – alongside Providence Water – utilized innovative grant funding to sponsor their program. 

North Providence used the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) from the Department of Housing and Urban Development reserved for low-moderate income (LMI) households. While the grant is not typically used for lead service line replacement, the state accepted the town’s request under the notion that lead pipes are an immediate public health hazard. The state awarded the city $250,000 to start their program. Since the grant is specifically reserved for LMI households, North Providence determined eligibility by filing extensive paperwork for each household, collecting income information for each household member. The work was described as rather tedious by the Program Manager, Dean Martilli. These efforts, however, led to the replacement of 125 lead service lines in homes with incomes under $42,500 over a three-year period. 

Dean Martilli expressed his appreciation for Mayor Charles Lombardi, describing him as a “champion of the program.” Mayor Lombardi received the EPA Children’s Health Award in 2018 for his notable efforts. Martilli expressed that the program “truly fell into place” when a strong partnership between Providence Water, the regional water utility led by Deputy General Manager Gregg Giasson, and North Providence was established. Martilli described Providence Water as accessible, cooperative, and responsive to the town’s needs. Martilli and Giasson unanimously described two key funding limitations: the restrictions of the CDBG grant and generally, the limited funding available. Homes right above the $42,500 mark do not qualify for funding under the grant provisions, even when the household cannot afford the cost of replacement. While Providence Water is in the process of filing paperwork for a WIIN grant through the EPA (also designated for low-income and disadvantaged communities), Martilli and Giasson hope for greater state level funding initiatives in the near future. 

Although these three cities are making considerable progress on lead service line replacement, with 6-10 million lead pipes in the United States, it is simply not enough. One substantial (and tricky) piece of the replacement problem lies in funding. Even when municipalities are set on replacing their lead pipes, they are unable to launch a full replacement program largely due to limited available funding or restrictions of a given grant. Existing funding is spread across several government agencies, not designated specifically for replacement, and as seen in North Providence, prevents the usage of certain grants on households that do not comply with grant provisions. Aside from the funding dilemma, additional barriers include the complexity of tearing up roads, getting permission to pursue replacement, and in some cases, the lack of plumbers to maintain the rapid replacement of lead pipes. These features often hold back municipalities from widespread replacement or as more frequently seen, launching any form of a replacement program. While adequate funding may remain a challenge, I believe that through innovative grant funding and strong program champions, like Mayor Charles Lombardi, can lead to a lead-free America, significantly reducing, if not eliminating the threat of lead in water for generations to come.

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