Cities Face ‘Impossible’ Deadline to Remove Lead Pipes (2)

Many cities rushing to inventory all lead drinking water pipes by the October deadline are worried about whether they can meet the EPA's next proposed requirement: completely replacing those pipes within 10 years.

“To us, complete removal in 10 years seems impossible in our service area,” said Michael Saia, spokesman for the Charleston Water System in Charleston, South Carolina, where an estimated 6,100 lead water lines are installed. “The cost is too high for our utility and our customers.”

To meet the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed requirements, Charleston would have to replace more than two lead pipes a day and more than 600 a year, at a total cost of about $100 million, he said.

Citing those costs, lack of funding and other concerns, Charleston earlier this year joined Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland and other water systems with suspected high levels of lead in their service lines in calling on the EPA to relax the lead pipe replacement requirement set out in its proposed Lead and Copper Rule Improvements (LCRI) law.

The proposal, which is expected to be finalized this fall, would require all water systems nationwide to replace 10% of their lead pipes annually from 2027 to 2037. The LCRI proposes accelerating lead pipe replacements compared to the current Trump-era rule, which requires cities to replace 3% of their lead pipes annually.

The Biden administration has made it a mission to replace all lead drinking water pipes in the United States as soon as possible to prevent lead poisoning from drinking water. The federal government banned lead service pipes in 1986, and the EPA estimates that there are about 9.2 million of them left in the United States. Most of them are in Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Identification of pipes

The first step in replacing lead pipes is finding them all. The EPA requires every water system in the U.S. to conduct an initial inventory of its lead pipes, determine which properties have lead pipes, and make the data public by October 16.

According to EPA's 2022 guidelines, an inventory may include the use of historical records, excavation projects, computer-based predictive models, and other means.

Two pipes could be made of lead: the pipe that is usually part of the water supply system and connects the main water line to the meter, and the private pipe that connects the meter to the house. Some utilities say they will pay to replace the public pipe, while they may have the homeowner pay to replace the private pipe. Some utilities plan to replace both.

Data released by the EPA in May shows that Chicago, Cleveland and New York City have the water systems with the most pipes suspected of being made of lead. However, the data is incomplete. Some cities report a large number of service lines made of “unknown” material. The cities with the most “unknown” service lines are Philadelphia, with 353,427, and Baltimore, with 348,019.

Each of these cities either declined to comment or did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

While associations representing water utilities expect most water systems to meet the deadline, some are likely to provide incomplete data or miss the deadline altogether.

Many water systems are making “honest and serious efforts” to inventory their lead service lines, said Alan Roberson, executive director of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators. “Some will do it half-heartedly, others will just give it a go until the deadline comes around.”

In Ohio, some small drinking water systems are understaffed and underfunded, and their administrators are overloaded with so many regulations that prioritizing needed lead pipe inventory and replacement will be extremely difficult, says Joseph Pheil, executive director of the Ohio Rural Water Association.

“Many utilities and operators say, ‘I do what I can and send what I can,’” Pheil said.

Most small water systems in Ohio will meet the October inventory deadline, but some administrators may consider the inventory only a “draft” and likely mark many of their systems' water mains as “unknown” if a more thorough inventory is too difficult or time-consuming, he said.

Pennsylvania state regulators believe it is extremely important that water systems submit accurate and timely inventories. They expect most of the state's water systems to meet the deadline, according to Jayne Pardys, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

To ensure compliance, the state Department of Environmental Protection will use an automated tool to identify systems that have not completed their inventories 30 days before the deadline.

Pennsylvania has trained more than 1,000 water utility employees statewide in inventory methods since 2022 and will fine those who do not comply by the deadline, she said.

The EPA is not tracking water systems' progress toward meeting the October deadline, agency spokeswoman Dominique Joseph said.

Top of the list

If approved, the LCRI would require water utilities to regularly update their inventories and give them three years to review the components of a water main that was initially inventoried as “unknown.”

Some cities with some of the highest estimated concentrations of lead service lines are well ahead in their inventory levels.

Denver Water began the inventory in 2019 and is on schedule to complete it by the deadline, said Alexis Woodrow, the utility's lead reduction program manager.

The utility expects there will be about 30,000 lead service lines left by the end of 2024, down from about 64,000 in 2019, said Denver Water spokesman Jimmy Luthye.

The city exceeded allowable lead levels in its drinking water in 2012 and began treating its water for lead shortly thereafter. So far, the city has replaced 25,000 lead pipes and expects to replace all of them by 2034, Woodrow said.

Milwaukee, which has an estimated 74,000 lead service lines, has detailed records of its water mains going back 150 years and simply needs to reformat existing data to meet the deadline, said Pat Pauly, director of Milwaukee Water Works.

Washington, DC, has completed its inventory and expects to replace water supplies by 2037, said John Lisle, vice president of communications for DC Water.

Although EPA data from May show there are an estimated 21,391 lead service lines remaining in DC Water's jurisdiction, the utility now estimates there are more than 41,000, according to Lisle.

Against full replacement

The cost of replacing lead service lines once the inventory is complete will be insurmountable without additional assistance, even for cities like Milwaukee that meet the LCRI's 10-year replacement period.

“Additional federal funding will be needed to replace lead pipes during this time period,” Pauly said. “The cost of replacement continues to rise.”

Cities Face ‘Impossible’ Deadline to Remove Lead Pipes (2)

Other cities suspected of having large concentrations of lead pipes told the EPA that the 2037 deadline set by the LCRI was too ambitious.

Minneapolis, which has an estimated 48,500 lead pipes, wants the EPA to give it “flexibility” on how quickly pipes need to be replaced in places where water tests show acceptable levels of lead in drinking water, said Mattie Croaston, a spokesman for the Minneapolis Department of Public Works.

“The nationwide effort to replace lead service lines over the next decade will place significant demands on the labor and materials available to complete this work,” he said.

The Philadelphia Water Department told the EPA in a letter released in February that replacing lead service lines over that period would cost up to $500 million and that Congress would need to provide cities with more money.

The EPA's proposed schedule is “unfeasible” due to high costs and staff shortages, Randy Hayman, CEO of the Philadelphia Water Department, said in the letter.

The Baltimore Bureau of Water and Wastewater called on the EPA to require lead pipe replacement only where lead contamination is actually found in drinking water, rather than forcing cities to replace all lead pipes.

Replacing all lead is a “conservative” solution to prevent contamination in drinking water, but the cost is too high, Paul Sayan, deputy director of Baltimore's Water and Sewerage Department, told the EPA in February.

Cleveland, which like Pittsburgh uses orthophosphate corrosion inhibitors to chemically reduce lead levels in water, is also asking the EPA to order lead pipe replacements only where lead levels in water are high.

“For a system like Cleveland, which has not experienced a 90th percentile violation since implementing orthophosphate treatment, the cost of replacing the LSLs in such a short period of time does not justify the cost to our customers in improving public health,” said Margaret Rodgers, Cleveland Water's chief operating officer, in her letter to the EPA in February.

Some utilities, such as Denver Water, have avoided orthophosphate. Colorado regulators required the utility to use orthophosphate to control lead. But Denver Water was concerned that streams and rivers would be polluted with phosphorus, so the company developed a plan to speed up the replacement of lead pipes.

Rodgers' office declined to comment. Hayman's and Sayan's offices did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Joseph, the EPA spokeswoman, said the agency is reviewing feedback from cities on the proposed LCRI.

In Charleston, customers did not ask water officials to speed up the replacement of lead pipes, Saia said.

“The Charleston Water System is doing everything in its power to eliminate lead service lines,” he said. “The EPA and the federal government are requiring us to act in a way that has incredible cost implications for the utility and the customers – we are facing an impossible, unfunded mandate here.”

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