Valley toils to abide by tough new lead rules
Most U.S. cities would have to replace lead water pipes within 10 years under strict new rules proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency as the Biden administration moves to reduce lead in drinking water and prevent public health crises like the ones in Flint, Michigan, and Washington, D.C.
The Biden administration previously said it wants all of the nation’s roughly 9 million lead pipes to be removed rapidly. Lead pipes connect water mains in the street to homes and typically are the biggest source of lead in drinking water. They are most common in older, industrial parts of the country.
It is the strongest overhaul of lead rules in more than three decades and will cost billions of dollars. Pulling it off will require overcoming enormous practical and financial obstacles.
Here in the Mahoning Valley, several municipalities already are working to tackle the problem.
The proposal, called the lead and copper rule improvements, would for the first time require utilities to replace lead pipes even if their lead levels aren’t too high. Most cities have not been forced to replace their lead pipes, and many don’t even know where they are. Some cities with a lot of lead pipes might be given longer deadlines, the agency said.
The push to reduce lead in tap water is part of a broader federal effort to combat lead exposure that includes proposed stricter limits on dust from lead-based paint in older homes and child-care facilities and a goal to eliminate lead in aviation fuel.
The EPA enacted the first comprehensive regulations covering lead in drinking water in 1991. Those have significantly helped reduce lead levels, but experts have said they left loopholes that keep lead levels too high, and lax enforcement allows cities to ignore the problem.
“We now know that having literally tens of millions of people being exposed to low levels of lead from things like their drinking water has a big impact on the population” and the current lead rules don’t fix it, said Erik Olson, an expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council who challenged the original regulations in the early 1990s. “We’re hoping this new rule will have a big impact.”
In addition, the EPA announced it wants to lower the level of lead at which utilities are forced to take action. And federal officials are pushing cities to do a better job informing the public when elevated lead levels are found.
Another change involves how lead is measured. Utilities would need to collect more samples, and this alone could have significant consequences. When Michigan did something similar, the number of communities flagged for having high lead levels skyrocketed.
The public will have a chance to comment on the proposal and the agency expects to publish a final version of the rule in the fall of 2024. There is then a waiting period before it goes into effect.
SOME OF WHAT’S GOING ON LOCALLY
Nick D’Alesio, water quality compliance director for the Youngstown Water Department, said the city estimates more than 12,000 service lines need replaced, based on the year homes were built.
Over the past 15 months, D’Alesio said, Youngstown has been replacing the city-owned portion of service lines all over town, but those not covered by EPA funding can cost homeowners between $1,300 and $1,800. He said that effort and future plans will be assessed and the city may be able to offset those costs.
“As a city, we’re looking at financial options to help that along, based on demographic studies,” he said.
D’Alesio said in addition to requiring the city to replace the homeowner’s end of service lines, the agency also offers loan forgiveness.
“They want you to take the financing and do the property side,” he said.
However, D’Alesio said cities need to be careful about how many loans they take on, and how much money they will have to pay back.
The city’s plan was to replace all the lines by 2050, but the EPA has set a deadline of 2037. D’Alesio said Youngstown is not concerned.
“We’ve been doing it already for about 15 months, so we’re just going to readjust our plan and adjust our resources to meet that.”
D’Alesio said the city takes 200 lead and copper samples per year from EPA-approved customers, called Tier 1. These are single-family homes with a lead service line or lead solder joints installed between 1983 and 1989.
He said Youngstown also services some Tier 3, depending on selection from the EPA. Those represent homes with lead copper plumbing outside of the 1983 to 1989 period.
“The last two years, our 90th percentile was below detection limit, which is the best possible results. It is important to know that we purchase our water for distribution from MVSD, which does a host of water sampling as well,” he said. “We have no issues or concerns about the quality of our drinking water.”
The water department sent out a survey in May, asking residents to help the city identify the types of service lines installed at their homes.
SITUATION IN NILES
In Niles, the city will begin to address its situation by creating an inventory of lead pipes in the city, Kevin Robertson, water department superintendent, said.
“To create the inventory, we’ll do an intensive records review that includes information from numerous sources including tax parcel data, customer billing, older work orders, GIS mapping, and historical records,” Robertson said. “Once we’re done capturing all that information, we’ll be able to have a better idea of where we stand, what could be lead, what is lead, things of that nature.”
Robertson said Niles is working with a company called 120Water, based in Zionsville, Indiana, to help develop the preliminary inventory.
Until the inventory is complete, Robertson said there is no way of knowing how many lead service lines are in the city.
“We have a lot of older homes in Niles,” he said. “There are areas in which they could definitely be lead, but we’re going to do that field work, that internal records review to pinpoint exactly, and create a more up-to-date, accurate map than what we currently have.”
Robertson could not say how much the service line replacements may cost in Niles as the city is still working on its inventory.
He said there likely will be funds available through both grants and loans. But, Robertson said a large portion of the cost will be paid through “locally funded dollars.”
Aqua Ohio, which provides water and wastewater services to about 474,000 people in 20 Ohio counties, has been working for decades to eliminate lead service lines in its water distribution system, according to Bob Davis, Aqua Ohio president.
None of the provider’s water mains are lead. Rather, Aqua Ohio uses either cast iron or ductile iron.
“When we encounter a lead service line, which connects private properties to our mains, we place the portion of the main we own,” Davis said. “We also notify the property owner and give them information about the dangers of lead, steps to minimize lead exposure and recommend they consider replacing the portion of the service line that they own.”
Like communities that provide water, the company is doing a survey to identify lead lines and potential problem areas. So far, according to Davis, the company has inventoried the material of about 50% of its 115,000 service lines. Of that, less than 5% are lead, he said, however cautioning, that percentage could rise as the remainder of the lines are inventoried.
Aqua owns and operates 38 systems in Ohio.
“I’m proud to say that all of those systems are compliant with EPA regulations, including limits for lead,” Davis said.
Unlike other contaminants, lead seeps into drinking water that’s already left the treatment plant. The main remedy is to add chemicals to keep it from leaching out of pipes and plumbing fixtures.
That’s what happens at the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District, the bulk water supplier for about 220,000 people in the Valley. It supplies water to Youngstown, Niles and McDonald, which then sell it to residential and other customers.
“MVSD treats the water,” the water supplier’s chief engineer, Mike McNinch, said. “We add a corrosion inhibitor, orthophosphate. That acts as a coating to prevent lead or copper, specifically, from leaching out of the pipes into the drinking water.”
As for MVSD’s service lines, they are either riveted steel or ductile iron pipe, McNinch said.
It ultimately will be up to utilities to decide whether to pay the full cost of replacing lead pipes, which is too expensive for many people to afford.
“We strongly, strongly encourage water utilities to pay for it,” Radhika Fox, head of the EPA Office of Water, said.
The Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, which represents large public water utilities, said it can be difficult to secure homeowner permission to do the work and handle rising costs.
President Donald Trump’s administration addressed lead in water, issuing new standards just before the end of his term, after years of efforts by advocates. Those rules forced utilities to take stronger action when lead levels rose too high and required them to test day-care centers and schools. They also made communities locate their lead pipes — initial inventories are due in October.
But environmental groups criticized the rule for not going far enough. In response, the Biden administration said it would make the improvements.
The 2021 infrastructure law included $15 billion to find and replace lead pipes. More will be needed. Additional federal funds are available to improve water infrastructure and the EPA is providing smaller communities with extra help. Some states, however, have been slower to attack the problem — a handful declined the first round of federal lead pipe funds.
Replacing the country’s lead pipes will be expensive, but the EPA says the health benefits far outweigh the cost.
Those benefits, Fox said, “are really priceless.”