DULUTH — To rid the city’s water system of lead pipes, local utility officials have applied to the Minnesota Public Facilities Authority for $10 million in government funding, and even if they receive the requested amount, that will be just enough to begin what awaits will be a large and costly undertaking.
“In a perfect world, we would get $10 million each for the next five years,” said Eric Shaffer, chief engineer for Duluth’s water and gas operations.
But he acknowledged that this could be a big challenge.
Overall, Minnesota has allocated a total of $43 million in annual funding that the agency can use to help cities across the state address concerns about lead contamination in their water systems. And the program is set to go under in just five years.
Shaffer believes $50 million would likely be enough to cover the cost of replacing old lead piping with safer piping made of less hazardous modern materials. However, the truth is that he doesn’t really know.
While the city has reliable records showing where lead is located in the water infrastructure it owns, the same is not the case for the private water lines that make the final home-to-curb connections.
“On the private side, our records aren’t that good,” admitted Shaffer.
Therefore, the city is dependent on the help of local residents.
“We’re trying to identify every single leading service line in the city of Duluth. And our goal is to remove them all. So we’re really going to know what’s going on around town,” said Cyndi Falconer, Duluth’s senior avoidance coordinator.
The end of a section of 5/8 inch lead pipe used as a residential service line.
Clint Austin/Duluth News Tribune
So far, however, the city has struggled to engage property owners.
If Duluth can get federal support for its ongoing lead reduction efforts, two neighborhoods, Lincoln Park and Gary-New Duluth, are next in line for line replacement. However, Falconer said out of more than 800 requests sent to Gary-New Duluth residents, the city received only about 150 responses.
Shaffer said the city needs to get a better handle on the scope of the work before issuing a call for proposals, preferably before July.
He stressed that given federal and state funding sources likely to be available in the near term, local residents would be wise to jump on board. Typically, property owners are responsible for lines that run across private property. But if Duluth is successful in finding funding, the state funding program would cover replacement costs.
But the locals would still have to pay the whistler to some extent.
Shaffer explained that the city would receive a state loan to meet its cost of replacing public lines, which would likely require an increase in utility charges if the Duluth Public Utilities Commission approved the proposed plan.
Nonetheless, Shaffer claims the city would come out on top, and residents currently served by leading utility lines would certainly benefit.
He said work will begin next week with a pilot involving 11 homes on East Eighth Street.
Shaffer explained that instead of digging up front yards to replace lead water lines, the city plans to dig holes at the main and shut-off valves and then use a cable system to try to pull out the lead supply line along with a spare plastic line attached directly behind it.
This approach, which is expected to initially cost about $12,000 per household, is admittedly more expensive initially than the more conventional excavation method, but Shaffer said it’s less disruptive and will result in less need for aftercare.
Eric Shaffer holds a piece of lead pipe showing corrosion on the outer layer.
Clint Austin/Duluth News Tribune
If the approach works and contractors can complete the process, Shaffer predicts prices will fall accordingly.
Assuming success, the first project will result in installing 50 to 60 additional replacement lines on East Eighth Street later this summer with the help of $1.6 million in federal COVID-19 grants. Pandemic Aid provided by American Rescue to Duluth Plan Act.
Shaffer said a complication is that the maximum length of a train is likely between 25 and 30 feet. Homes with longer water supply lines may require an additional hole in the yard.
The city is working to get a full picture of the number of leading service lines in Gary-New Duluth and lower Lincoln Park for the purpose of preparing specifications and a call for proposals for the year’s planned work later this summer Publish in 2023, Duluth may be successful in raising grant funds.
Additional neighborhoods would be tackled over the next five years until all of the city’s lead pipes are replaced.
In the meantime, Falconer said the city has purchased 1,000 water filter jugs, which it is giving away free to residents with lead service lines. She said more will be ordered as needed.
Children exposed to lead may develop behavioral and/or learning problems. Adults with elevated lead levels may develop high blood pressure and/or kidney problems.
For a guide to identifying a leading service lead, see duluthmn.gov/public-works-utilities/utilities/water/lead-water-education.
Property owners can specify the type of service hotline they have themselves on the same website or arrange a free inspection with the city. To contact the city’s technical department, call 218-730-5200.