Biden rule could replace hundreds (maybe thousands) of lead home water lines in region

A proposed strengthening of the federal Lead and Copper Rule could require public water systems to identify and replace every lead line in their communities, even lines connecting to homes that historically were the responsibility of property owners.

This would be a massive undertaking. The Dayton area contains hundreds of known lead service lines and thousands more that may contain lead and would need to be tested under the proposed rules.

Research shows that prolonged lead exposure can cause developmental harm to infants and young children and numerous other health concerns.

Officials from the Dayton Public Water System and Montgomery County Environmental Services said they are working to take inventory of what they know about their communities’ service lines, a task every public water system must complete by this October.

But the proposed update to the federal rule would also create a 10-year timeline (with a 10% removal requirement annually) for public water systems to identify and replace these pipes, as well as create new contamination standards for the toxic metal.

Environmental advocates say replacing lead service lines will save Americans millions of dollars in health care related costs and protect children and adults from the harm of lead exposure.

Government officials point to obstacles that lie ahead to meet this requirement.

“The only way to know for sure what material a line is made of is to dig it up. This is expensive and requires work to be done on roads, sidewalks, and private properties,” said Dina Pierce, a media coordinator for the Ohio EPA. “The mapping and replacement of lead service lines is a top priority for Governor DeWine and the Ohio EPA.”

A $15 billion effort

The Biden administration in November proposed an update to the federal Lead and Copper Rule that would task public water systems with replacing all lead service lines under their control if they are physically and legally able. This includes portions of lines that extend to individual houses.

Currently, property owners are responsible for replacing the portion of a water service line that falls on their property. That’s an undertaking that can cost a homeowner thousands of dollars, and little financial assistance exists for homeowners who wish to replace the portion of their lead service lines that run under their properties.

If finalized, this rule revision will be supported by $15 billion of Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding, with 49% of the funding earmarked for disadvantaged communities.

Credit: NYT

Credit: NYT

Melanie Houston, the managing director of water policy for the Ohio Environmental Council, said Ohio is one of the leading states in terms of the number of lead service lines. She commended the strengthening of federal lead regulations.

“This update to the Lead and Copper Rule will speed up the timeline for water systems to replace lead services, while immediately improving the safety of Ohioans drinking water by improving water sampling,” she said.

Local water systems mapping lead pipes

The Ohio EPA maintains a database of maps submitted to the state by public water systems. Dayton’s most recent maps were submitted in 2022 and show the public and private portion of lead service lines, confirmed non-lead service lines and service lines with unknown lead statuses.

Neighborhoods like Wright View contain a mix of all three. Nearly every household that runs along the Wright Avenue side of Washington Park have service lines that contain lead on both their private and public portions, according to a Dayton map. Streets immediately north of Washington Park contain a mix of service lines with lead and non-lead components.

Wright View resident Garnet Grabe has lived in her home for more than 60 years and wasn’t aware her house, located on Westview Avenue, had a service line that was partially made out of lead.

She told the Dayton Daily News that she lacks the money for a multi-thousand dollar project to replace the part of her service line that runs under her front yard and up to her home. Her relatives, some of whom live on her street, are similarly positioned.

“I probably won’t be here when the changes are made,” the 87-year-old said. “But it will do good for younger people, or children in our area. They are our future, after all.”

Other neighborhoods like Belmont, Burkhardt, Cornell Heights, Eastern Hills and the Dayton View Triangle neighborhood that runs along Salem Avenue have hundreds of properties where it’s unknown if the pipes contain lead.

Montgomery County Environmental Services Director Matt Hilliard said the locations in their water service area that have the most lead lines are Harrison Twp., Kettering, and Riverside. These areas have more prevalent lead service lines because lead was an acceptable material when they were installed.

His agency is currently working in the Flescher Rainbow and Shroyer neighborhoods in Kettering and Nottingham neighborhood in Harrison Twp. to identify service line materials.

Lead and water contamination

Dayton’s public water system serves hundreds of thousands of residents in Montgomery and Greene Counties. According to the city’s 2022 water quality report, samples collected in the water distribution system show less than 4 parts per billion (ppb) of lead.

Similarly, according to Montgomery County Environmental Services’ most recent water quality report, less than 5 ppb of lead appeared in samples collected throughout 2022.

There is no safe level of exposure to lead. The update to the federal lead regulations would also lower the acceptable level of lead contamination in drinking water from 15 ppb to 10 ppb and require public water systems to give filters to all consumers in their service area who have elevated levels of lead in their water.

The primary sources of lead-contaminated water are lead service lines, lead solder and brass fittings that contain high concentrations of lead. Plumbing installed before 1986 is more likely to contain higher concentrations of lead, as that was the year a federal ban on using lead pipe and solder was established, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Credit: Alexis Larsen

Credit: Alexis Larsen

Partial service line replacement, which is sometimes performed to minimize the cost of service line repair by water authorities, fails to reduce lead exposure, pediatric health experts say.

Hilliard said that although the term “lead pipes” can be scary to homeowners, lead pipes don’t pose an immediate threat to households unless the protective layer over the pipe, called “scaling,” is disturbed.

Water main breaks can disturb service lines, and when this happens in neighborhoods known to have lead pipes, Montgomery County water officials give pitchers with lead filters to residents and ask them to run water from every faucet in their home for several minutes to flush out any lead contamination.

Funding available for addressing lead

State agencies are funneling millions of dollars to local governments to address both lead pipes and lead paint, another major contributor to lead poisoning in Ohio children.

The Ohio EPA has sent $5.1 million for service line identification to 163 water systems serving more than six million Ohioans. Another $18 million is going toward this effort in 2024, officials said.

Roughly $735 million through the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has been allocated to Ohio for projects related to removing lead service lines. Ohio has spent $78 million for lead service line removal projects throughout the state in the last five years and will continue to fund lead service line removal projects with the remaining funds over the next three to four years.

Montgomery County, too, is working to determine how it will spend $4.7 million from the Ohio LeadSafe program. This funding can be spent on lead paint abatement and replacing customer-side lead service lines.

“Replacing water lines with known lead is expensive and takes a lot of manpower,” said Tiffany Petry, the assistant director of Montgomery County Environmental Services. “We maintain records of where known lead is located throughout the County and are working to prioritize where to begin actively replacing lead water lines.”

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