It’s beyond time to get the lead out

No amount of lead in the blood is safe, according to public health officials. Children are especially vulnerable to the chemical’s ill effects. That’s why President Biden has proposed eliminating the country’s lead water pipes and has developed a $45 billion plan to replace lead service lines. Should Congress pass the legislation, what impact might it have here in Massachusetts?

State environmental officials estimate that there are about 220,000 buried lead pipes, representing approximately 8.3% of the service lines. The American Water Works Association estimated in 2016 that the state ranked eleventh in the nation for the number of lead service lines. In the Metro Boston area covered by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, there are about 13,000 lead lines remaining, representing about 2.5% of the region’s homes and buildings. The MWRA, along with the cities and towns it serves, has made a lot of progress over the years removing many of the lines.

Replacing lead pipes is a costly proposition. The offending pipe might only be in the street and/or run from the street under the front lawn of the property. Or it might extend all the way from the street into the house. About 5% of the region’s lead pipes are “goosenecks,” short pieces of lead that connect a galvanized service line to the main in the street. Trading out an entire service line, which usually spans about 30 to 50 feet, could cost $6,000 to $10,000, according to Stephen Estes-Smargiassi, the MWRA’s director of planning and sustainability. On average, the section on private property costs about $5,000 to replace.

The MWRA began a zero-interest program to loan cities and towns money for lead pipe removal. But the communities have to pay the money back. With federal funds, there would be no cost to the municipalities. And more significantly, there would be no cost to the homeowners and other ratepayers.

A few cities and towns, including Quincy, Chelsea, and Marlboro, cover the entire cost of replacing lead service lines. But most communities ask homeowners to foot the bill for the private portion of the line and offer a variety of programs. Newton, for example, provides homeowners a 10-year, 0%-interest loan. Boston performs the work, funds the first $4,000 for property owners, and offers them a loan for 60 months at 0% interest to cover the balance. Estes-Smargiassi, who lives in Jamaica Plain, had his lead service line replaced. Since the private section cost less than $2,000 it was free to him.

Most property owners, however, have to fork over some money to remove their lead service lines. That can present a significant obstacle. “It would be great to solve a health problem without causing a financial problem,” Estes-Smargiassi says. “If you can make it free to the homeowner, it’s much easier to get them to participate.” Passing Biden’s proposed plan would enable the state to remove the remaining lead service lines at a much faster pace, he adds.

There are a number of ways property owners can determine whether they have lead service lines. Many larger communities list the locations of lines on their Web sites. If the information is not available online, homeowners could contact their local city or town halls and ask whether they can provide the info. On its Web site, the MWRA shows property owners how they (or their plumbers) can determine whether they have a lead or copper service line by scratching the pipe with a key.

“It’s absolutely the right thing to do,” Local 12 Business Manager Tim Fandel says about the Biden administration’s ambitious lead pipe removal proposal. He points to the avoidable lead poisoning tragedy in Flint, Michigan as a dire warning sign and cites the importance of safe and clean drinking water. “It’s long overdue for us to take action,” he adds.