Maureen Cunningham and Olya Egorov
American City and Country
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“We move Heaven and earth,” says Montana Birt. A transplant from Georgia, Birt is a pastor in a local church in Thorp, Wisc., the smallest of cities with a population of just more than 1,600. His more earthly endeavor, however, involves digging up and replacing lead pipes that threaten to poison his neighbors’ water in Thorp and in Eau Claire, Wisc., about 40 miles west.
We met Birt in the course of examining lead service line replacement programs in municipalities across the country. Big cities like Newark, N.J., or Denver often grab the headlines for their programs, but we set out to learn what smaller municipalities with lead pipes are doing to replace them.
The problem of lead in drinking water has a clear and viable solution: replace the lead pipes that connect water mains to individual homes and buildings. Unfortunately, the clear solution is muddied by the fact that some of that service line (from the curb to the house) is private, belonging to the individual homeowner or landlord. While removing the full service line is the best way to eliminate the threat of lead in drinking water, most municipalities replace only the publicside of lead pipes, leaving the other half of the problem in the ground. Partial replacement not only fails to address the whole problem, but in the short term, can disturb pipes and thus put homeowners at an even greater health risk. Alternatively, municipalities that require full lead service line replacement, but leave the onus on homeowners to pay the cost of private-side removal, put an unfair burden on low-income and middle-income communities who simply cannot afford it. This can also result in inequitable replacement across a municipality, in particular along racial and economic lines, according to an investigation of Washington, D.C.’s lead service line replacement.
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The City of Akron is continuing the Lead Service Line Replacement Program this year to reduce the number of homes still connected to lead services.
According to city officials, for 2021 and 2022, Akron was awarded $1 million in funding for each year from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) through a Water Supply Revolving Loan Account loan. These funds do not need to be paid back, said officials.
“I’m excited to once again offer the lead service line replacement program to Akron residents,” said Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan. “… These funds will help us continue that mission to provide safe, reliable drinking water to our customers.”
City officials said records show there are approximately 4,000 lead services remaining in the city’s water distribution system, which make up 4.7 percent of all services. This number has been substantially reduced since the 1950s, when there were upwards of 50,000 lead services in the city.
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The Daily Northwestern
As part of a nationwide project to move away from lead piping, aldermen discussed ways to increase affordability for homeowners looking to replace their lead water service pipes.
After the 2014 Flint Water Crisis, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued the Lead and Copper Rule, which will prohibit partial lead service lines after 2024.
In coordination with the new regulation, the city is planning to replace all lead portions of the city’s water service line, even with a strained city budget. This year, the city plans to undergo eight separate water main improvement projects which will cost the city a projected $4.5 million. However, the city will only pay for the public portions of the water service lines. Portions on private properties need to be paid at the homeowner’s expense.
Currently, Evanston’s Lead Service Replacement Loan Program gives homeowners up to $4,800 in interest free loans to replace lead piping, but the city’s website says the average cost for replacement is about $7,000.
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The Janesville Water Utility receives a DNR grant to cover the cost of replacing all of the remaining private lead water service laterals in the City.
Janesville Utility Director David Botts says the cost to replace a private lead water service lateral is up to $6000 and the grant will be invaluable to homeowners.
Botts says the City is in the process of sending letters to the approximately 260 homes in the City that still have lead water service laterals.
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