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Replacing Detroit’s lead pipes could take decades

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Flint — Detroit’s water chief says there are at least 125,000 lead service lines snaking beneath the city and carrying water into homes and businesses, a potentially dangerous threat that could take decades to remove and cost up to $500 million.

Water and Sewerage Department Director Gary Brown outlined those figures this week at a national water conference being held in Flint, a city attempting to replace 20,000 underground service lines in the wake of a major contamination crisis that saw toxic lead levels in tap water reach homes.

Detroit has avoided a similar crisis by using phosphate corrosion control chemicals to coat its aging pipes, and recent testing shows city water is well below the federal action level for lead. But experts have warned that water coming through any lead pipe is not safe by modern standards.

Brown, calling it a “conservative” estimate, said Detroit has at least 125,000 lead service lines — probably more than the rest of the state combined, he argued. The city is exploring options but does not currently have a long-term replacement program in place.

Detroit has a preponderance of single-family homes built before 1950, and the city is now assuming all of those homes have lead service lines beneath them.

“We’re not Chicago or New York with multi-unit dwellings,” Brown said Tuesday in a speech to water safety and industry experts. “We’re single-family homes, and just about all of that housing was built before 1950, so just about all of our houses have (lead service lines).”

Brown said the city has reviewed old service line records stored on individual note cards, many of them 60 or 70 years old, and has then worked to verify those records when crews go into a home or neighborhood for other water system work.

“And what we found is we have a minimum of 125,000, possibly as many as 150,000,” he told The Detroit News in a follow-up interview.

Lead services lines are in communities across Metro Detroit, the state and country, not just Detroit or Flint. There may be as many as 10 million still in the ground nationwide, according to federal Environmental Protection Agency Region 5 Administrator Roger Kaplan.

“That’s just an overwhelming problem,” said Kaplan, noting he hopes to talk with President Donald Trump’s new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, about aging pipes “that we really need to get out.”

Kaplan said the federal government provided local communities across the country with $2.47 billion in financial assistance for water infrastructure upgrades last year through the Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund.

“One point of commonality that we all have with this new administration is a focus on infrastructure,” he said, “and we’re really hoping to prevail upon this administration to focus really intently on bolstering things like the SRF and coming up with new and better ways to do it.”

David LaFrance, CEO of the American Water Works Association, said his group estimates there are 6 million lead services lines nationwide. That’s less than the 10 million figure offered by Kaplan, but he said neither estimate is precisely correct because of old, missing or incomplete records.

Roughly 55 percent of those 6 million pipes are located in Midwest states, including Michigan, LaFrance said. There are also believed to be more lead pipes on the east coast than the west and southern United States.

“It’s not unique to Michigan,” he said. “They are in every single state. They are effecting communities big and large, but they are not evenly spread across the United States.”

Detroit replaced a handful of lead service lines last year and intends to replace more this summer as it moves forward with a $100 million water main replacement project, Brown said, but large-scale replacement will be difficult without dedicated funding.

“That’s a $400 million to $500 million liability to replace those lines,” Brown said. “We are going to need support from the federal and state government in order to deal with this particular issue.”

Citing the potential for future replacement mandates by the state or federal government, Brown said it would be “cost prohibitive” for Detroit to try to replace all its lead service lines in 10 years, suggesting it could take twice that long.

“I’ll have pilot programs designed to gather data on how we can improve the process, how we can become more efficient, how we can scale this up to 10,000 or 15,000 lines a year,” he said.

Flint, using an initial round of $27 million in state funding, has replaced about 800 underground service lines in the past year, less than the 1,000 it had hoped to complete in 2016 alone. Still, Flint officials say they’re on pace to replace 6,000 a year through 2019 at an estimated cost of up to $108 million.

Flint is also expected to qualify for $100 million in congressionally approved federal funding, with plans to spend $40 million on pipe replacement and the other $60 million on various water system improvements.

Like Flint, service line replacement in Detroit is complicated by the fact that the city does not own the portion of pipes that runs under residential homes. Brown wants to obtain waivers from homeowners allowing city crews to replace them, but new state laws or local ordinances may be needed, he said.

Lansing, the only Michigan city to replace all its lead service lines, owned the full pipes. It initially cost the city $9,000 to replace each pipe, but Lansing had driven the cost down to about $3,600 by the end of the 12-year project.

“My customers can’t afford a $5,000 to $7,000 bill to replace their portion of the services lines, even if they wanted to do it,” Brown said.

Detroit performed federally mandated Lead and Copper Rule testing last summer, one year before it was required to do so. Ninety percent of homes tested at below 4 parts per billion lead, well below the federal action limit of 15 ppb.

But some national water experts, including Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, have warned that anyone who believes they have lead pipes running to their home should use a filter. Edwards says there is no doubt that filters completely eliminate” the threat of lead.

Detroit is currently offering free water testing to any concerned residents. Requests can be made online.

“We’ll do lead testing whether you have a lead service line or not,” Brown said.