City prepping for new EPA rules on lead in public water systems

New federal regulations pertaining to lead levels in public drinking water are set to go into effect October 2024.

The rules will lower the amount of detectable lead in the water that triggers treatment actions and data reporting, with the potential for significant cost to the City of Great Falls.

The new rules are from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and city officials said the revision for stricter compliance was triggered by the 2014 Flint, Mich. water crisis in which public water supplies were contaminated with lead.

Paul Skubinna, the city public works director, discussed the new rules with City Commissioners during their March 1 work session.

Skubinna said that staff and their utility consultant have been working on plans for how the city will comply with the new rules.

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The current rules trigger actions at lead levels above 15 parts per billion and the new rule would trigger action at 10 parts per billion.

One sticking point is that currently, the city policy is that it owns the water mains, but the service line from the main to a house or commercial property is the responsibility of the property owner.

The new rules require lead pipes to be replaced and city officials said that’s going to be a community conversation about who will bear that cost.

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To start, the city will generate a lead service line inventory and staff has started that process with available data.

Under the new rules, the inventory will have to show what water service lines are not known as lead, those that are known as lead and those that are unknown.

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Nate Weisenburger of AE2S, the city’s utility consultant, said that under the EPA rules, unknown lines are considered lead and if a galvanized line follows a lead connector, it’s also considered lead.

Right now, the city is showing 7,500 service lines that are unknown, according to Skubinna and Weisenburger.

Weisenburger said that if the inventory were to be submitted to the EPA now, it would show that they have to work on replacing those lines, with an estimated cost of $5,000 to $10,000 per line.

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For all the unknown lines, that total cost could range from $37.5 million to $75 million for service line replacements if they turn out to be lead, he said.

The rule does not mandate a rate of replacement and the rules could continue to be revised as the federal agency finalizes the rule this fall, Weisenburger said.

Weisenburger said that partial line replacements don’t count as improvements to the EPA and they have to be replaced from the main to the property.

“This rule could have some very significant financial impacts,” Weisenburger told commissioners.

The new rule will also increase water testing requirements, which would be another cost to the city, Weisenburger said.

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Currently, the city is under reduced monitoring so it’s monitoring about 30 locations every three years.

The new rule would require increasing sample sites every six months at a cost of $41 per sample, Weisenburger said.

The new rule also requires all primary schools and licensed childcare facilities connected to the system to do increased sampling, he said. At this point, staff is assuming that will apply to public and private schools.

The city is currently spending about $600 every three years for lead testing. The new requirements would increase that cost to about $2,460 every six months for municipal lines, plus added costs for schools and childcare facilities, Weisenburger said.

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Staff is brainstorming on how to prepare for the new rules and the anticipated costs to comply with the rules.

They’re considering adding full time employees to work on the service line inventory as a preemptive effort to identify which lines are lead, since reducing the number of unknown lines is helpful under the rules.

Some are identifiable using city records, but some will be harder to identify and may require moving dirt to get to the lines. Skubinna said that the city adopted rules in the 1960s or 70s that prohibited lead pipes and they can use that documentation to help identify what type of pipes are where in the city.

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The issue is complicated since the lines are on private property and staff are working on plans to educate the public and find ways to work with property owners to identify the types of line materials throughout the city in advance of the rule’s effective date.

The federal agencies have made some funds available for the replacement projects and the city could potentially use some of its federal COVID relief funds for the work, as well as the traditional state infrastructure grants, service rate increases, or special taxes or property assessments to cover the costs of complying with the new rule, Skubinna and Weisenburger said.

“City staff is not taking this lightly,” Skubinna said.

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As it stands, monitoring and sampling is the city’s responsibility and the cost, which could be passed on the customer, but if there’s some action required, such as replacing the pipe, it will likely be the responsibility of the property owners.

“The big issue is figuring out who bears the cost of replacing a lead service line on private property,” Weisenburger said. “It’s an unfortunate situation for those who have purchased a property or own a property with a lead service line.”

Skubinna said they’re trying to work on ways to help property owners find funding or resources to help with the cost of line replacements, but don’t know yet how that will pan out.

Commissioners asked some questions as to how the replacement work would be done and Skubinna said, “some of the questions you’re asking we don’t know the answers to yet. That’s what we’re working on, to have a program in place by the federal deadline and figure out how to pay for it.”

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Mayor Bob Kelly said, “we’re sitting here fairly dumbfounded” about the rule and potential cost.

City Manager Greg Doyon said it’s a “classic governmental knee jerk, as a result of an unfortunate event,” and an unfunded mandate.

The city’s current policy is that the service line from the main to the property is the responsibility of the property owner, though it could be changed, Doyon said.

The rule will have an impact on customer water rates, “no doubt about it,” Doyon said.

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Doyon said that are other preventative measures for lead, such as water filtration systems, so the city can also provide public information on managing the issue while figuring out compliance with the new rule.