AWWA Articles

Shared responsibility key to getting lead out

When AWWA last month announced its support for replacing all lead service lines over time, it stirred an ongoing discussion about how to accomplish the task, how long it will take, and how to pay for it.

One answer is already clear: Replacing lead service lines will require collaboration and shared responsibility among many partners – not just among utilities and customers.


“This decision to pursue removal of all lead service lines, whether on public or private property, is a broad societal commitment,” said Tracy Mehan, AWWA’s Executive Director of Government Affairs. “It requires shared responsibility defined in the broadest sense to include private property owners, federal, state and local governments, philanthropists, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and similar such agencies, as well as the utilities.”


On March 7, the AWWA Board of Directors voted unanimously to support the recommendations of the National Drinking Water Advisory Council for revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule – including removal of lead service lines over time. The NDWAC, which advises the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on drinking water regulations and other matters, stressed that a “comprehensive shared responsibility exists between federal, state and local government, public and private utilities, and customers.”


Because most lead service lines are partially owned by the utility and partially owned by the property owner, replacing them is not always simple.


“Part of the concept of shared responsibility includes utilities providing information so consumers can be informed and make thoughtful decisions regarding removal of private lead service lines,” said AWWA Treasurer David Rager, who has served as executive director of the Northern Kentucky Sanitation District No. 1 and CEO of the Greater Cincinnati Water Works.


Utility managers across North America are discussing the meaning of “shared responsibility” and how it applies locally. They are talking about ways to engage with customers who many not be able to afford to remove their lead service lines or understand the need to do so.

Twenty-five years ago, when the Lead and Copper Rule was instituted, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated there were 10.2 million lead service lines. A recent AWWA study puts today’s figure at 6.1 million.


Many utilities operate under the if-you-remove-yours, we’ll-remove-ours philosophy.


“We are trying to get as much lead out of the system as possible, whether city or private,” said Frank Trinchini, manager, contract services for Toronto Water in Ontario. “What we were finding was that although the city was doing its share, it left a portion of that pipe as lead.”


Trinchini said the city replaces about 1,500 public lead service lines every year for customers who are either replacing their own lead service lines, or who can demonstrate they’ve already done so. A couple of years ago, the Toronto City Council considered loaning money to homeowners to replace lead service lines, but rejected the idea.


AWWA estimates the cost to replace all lead service lines in the United States will top $30 billion, based on an average of $5,000 per line. Association President Gene Koontz noted that utilities are often legally prohibited from covering the cost of work on a customer’s private property. For others, the question becomes, is it fair to replace service lines for a few customers when others have previously borne this expense? Further muddying the waters is the fact that a disproportionate number of consumers who still have lead service lines are poor.


Koontz echoed Mehan’s many-slices-to-the-pie thinking on shared responsibility.


“The final solution must involve more than the utilities and their customers,” Koontz said. “We need state, provincial and federal government officials to support assistance for full lead replacement programs for those otherwise unable to pay.”


Koontz said state and local codes may need to be amended to encourage lead service line removal.  “We also need help from advocates and philanthropists to help the disadvantaged communities, and we need help from the media to publicize the early successes of those utilities who set the pace in ‘getting the lead out.’ ”


Ideas abound. Communities can incorporate lead service lines into home inspections and require consumers to replace them as a condition of the home sale. Individual home owners can wrap the cost into new mortgages. Government can consider federal tax deductions to help customers pay to remove their lines, as well as increase funding of federal lead risk reduction programs under HUD. Utilities, too, should inform low-income customers about the availability of any financing options.


On May 3, AWWA is conducting a seminar in Washington, D.C., where utility leaders will discuss how a collaborative approach among utilities, customers, government and other stakeholders is key to replacement plans. They will also address the critical issue of affordability for low-income customers.


Speakers from utilities in Cincinnati, Boston, Halifax and Lansing, Mich. will share their experiences and plans for replacing lead service lines.


Jeff Swertfeger, superintendent of water quality and treatment in Cincinnati, said his utility has removed the utility owned portions of 10,000 lead service lines in the past four-plus decades and that the remaining lead service lines make up only 7 percent of the utility’s inventory.

 The utility has a look-up tool on its website in which customers can check whether they have a lead service line. Since the emergence of Flint, the utility has set up a lead hotline for its customers.

 “To assist the customers, we are looking for grants and looking into financing options such as assessments or low-interest loans, and then they can pay us back through tax bills or water rates,” Swertfeger said. “We’re trying to make it easier so customers don’t have to cough up thousands of dollars at once.”

 In Boston, Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced last week the expansion of Boston Water and Sewer Commission’s Lead Replacement Program to encourage the city’s homeowners to replace their lead service lines.

 The expansion doubles the available finance assistance in the form of a credit of up to $2,000 to homeowners who use a BWSC contractor and doubles the terms of its interest-free loan to 48 months. The program began in 2005 and was responsible for 1,391 homeowners replacing their lead service lines, Sullivan said.

 “Our commission has given us direction: ‘You will not relent on this, you will go out there and help our customers remove lead where we find it,’” said John Sullivan, the utility’s chief engineer.

In Halifax, Novia Scotia, the utility has 2,500 lead service lines, but doesn’t know how many private lead service lines it has. The utility is planning a metering project over the next four years and hopes to use that opportunity to determine where lead service lines are.


Halifax Water is developing a plan to help homeowners replace their lead service lines and looking for sources of financial assistance for homeowners, said Reid Campbell, director of water services in Halifax and member of AWWA’s Water Utility Council.


At the utility in Lansing, which owns the service lines from main to home, all but 650 of its 14,000 lead service lines had been replaced by January of this year using money generated from general ratepayers.


Ever mindful of their mission to protect public health, utility managers continue to plan and share ideas for lead service line replacement.


“This process is complicated, very costly, and it will take time,” Koontz said. “However, the time is now to begin the process.”