Poughkeepsie mayor responds to lead pipe report

POUGHKEEPSIE – The city of Poughkeepsie faces tremendous challenges in removing its many leaded water pipes. However, the mayor has questioned several parts of a new report by an advocacy group that raised concerns about the city’s work and described the situation as a “crisis”.

The Environmental Advocates of New York shared their eight-page memo dated June 14 with city leaders, including Mayor Marc Nelson, calling for a meeting to discuss how they can work together on solutions. Nelson said he plans to have this meeting sometime after the July 4th holiday.

Nelson, who was unavailable for an interview last week, contacted the Times Union after publishing an article Monday to respond to the information in the memo. He claimed the report did not accurately reflect the reality of the city’s lead pipe replacement, particularly the magnitude of the cost.

According to data obtained through a public records request and cited in the memo, Poughkeepsie spent about $400,000 of a $544,000 grant for the Lead Service Line Replacement Program awarded by the state Department of Health and Human Services in 2018. The city replaced a total of 14 lines at an average cost of about $28,000 per line. The other costs were mainly administrative costs — technology purchases and staff salaries — which represent an acceptable use of funds, the memo said.

According to DOH, a complete lead line replacement should cost about $10,000 per line. Nelson called this estimate “absurd” and based on outdated information. He said the number came from a 2019 report based on data from 2017.

“The data…didn’t take into account the dramatic price hikes for everything and supply chain issues well known to all that have occurred as a result of the COVID pandemic,” he said. “We’ve seen the total cost of municipal contracts double over that time.”

Another factor to consider, the mayor said, is that Poughkeepsie will replace the entire length of the main utility.

Municipalities usually split the replacement costs with the property owner. The municipality pays for the portion that runs from the water line to the curb, while the rest of the line, which runs on private property, is the responsibility of the property owner. Through the DOH’s grant program, municipalities have reimbursed at least a portion of a property owner’s expenses.

But Nelson said Poughkeepsie paid the full cost of the full line replacement. He believes this approach is safer because it reduces the risk of water pollution and doesn’t leave it up to the property owner to do the replacement.

Nelson said the city is trying to do its job strategically and replace lead lines when other utility work is done. However, due to the high cost, the city needs more funds.

“Replacing leading utilities is a huge expense and … without significant state and federal resources that are not currently being allocated, it is an issue that the city cannot significantly address on its own,” Nelson said.

The memo notes that last August, Poughkeepsie missed the deadline for approving grants to apply for funding for wireline replacement through the state bipartisan Infrastructure Act. This program provides $15 billion for nationwide lead pipe inventory and replacement; New York will receive over $500 million over the next five years. New York will award $104 million to more than 100 communities that applied for funding in fiscal 2023.

A response to follow-up questions put to the city Wednesday did not address why the federal funding deadline was missed. But according to Poughkeepsie’s Engineering Department, the city has applied for grants through the state’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. In 2022, the application did not make it into the funding round. The city reapplied June 9 for grants of $2.4 million to expand its lead pipe inventory and $77.8 million for improvements to the citywide water distribution system. In addition, it is preparing an application and an engineering report for the replacement of leading service lines to be funded by government grants.

Eleven projects were also recently completed under the Clean Water State Revolving Fund Intended Use Plan, the department noted.

The city government is also preparing its capital plan, which will soon be reviewed by the local council, which regularly prioritizes the replacement of lead pipes, including the mains that feed each line.

Because of its age, lead water pipe infrastructure is a problem for many New York City communities. Lead was a popular water pipe material from the late 1800s through the late 1930s, when building practices and regulations restricted its use. According to a report from the State Department of Health, about 6,500 homes were built in Poughkeepsie prior to 1939.

Although lead pipe is not inherently dangerous, corrosion in aging lead pipe can release the toxin that can enter drinking water and lead to lead poisoning. No exposure to lead is considered safe, although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued regulations requiring a community to take action if levels are exceeded.

“It’s a big challenge and I don’t pretend to have all the answers,” Nelson said.

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