City beginning water pipe inventory to comply with new EPA rules

The city is preparing for a new rule from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency pertaining to lead and copper in drinking water lines.

The city maintains an inventory of water service line material types for residences and businesses within the city limits.

Currently, there are 7,000 to 8,000 addresses in the city with an unknown pipe material, according to the city.

The new EPA rule requires the city to identify and inventory the locations of lead and galvanized steel service lines within the city limits.

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In July, the city will send letters to those property owners with instructions for locating the water service line as it enters the residence, performing a test to identify the line material type and providing that information back to the city.

The information will then be reported to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

The 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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The city is starting with the lead service line inventory and staff started that process in the spring 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 during the March meeting 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.