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More than $200M in federal funds heading to Minnesota to replace lead water pipes

The Health Department estimated the cost of removing all lead pipes and plumbing fixtures in Minnesota would be $1.5 billion to $4.12 billion over 20 years.

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ST. PAUL -- Minnesota cities and local water services will ramp up the removal of underground lead water pipes this year with a slice of the $15 billion in funding over the next five years provided by a bipartisan infrastructure bill that Congress and President Joe Biden enacted in November.

Lead service lines deliver water to up to 10 million American households — about 7 percent of all residences served by community water services — endangering the health of residents who consume it.

Support for removing lead from drinking water has been growing since 2014, when improperly treated water damaged city pipes and released lead into the Flint, Mich., water system.

Under the new federal program, Minnesota is expected to receive $43 million a year for the next five years, Jeff Freeman, executive director of the state Public Facilities Authority, said last week. The authority administers Minnesota’s water project grants and loans.

The Minnesota Health Department estimated in 2019 that 100,000 lead service lines remain in the state, carrying drinking water to Minnesotans who may not suspect their water could be contaminated with lead. But the Natural Resources Defense Council said in July that the Health Department estimate covers only part of the state, and the council’s 2021 survey estimated Minnesota has 260,000 or more lead service lines, giving the state the 10th-highest number of lead pipes in the nation.

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Plan for removal

St. Paul and 13 neighboring suburbs have up to 26,600 lead service lines in private property and 9,000 additional lines in public rights of way, the St. Paul Regional Water Service reported last week. It would cost an estimated $223 million to replace all those lines, plus an additional $15 million for related street improvements.

The St. Paul Regional Board of Water Commissioners voted Tuesday, Jan. 11, to develop a plan to replace all the lead water pipes in 10 years. Those pipes would be swapped for copper or polyethylene lines.

“It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity” to remove a serious health hazard, Commissioner Chris Tolbert said before the vote.

Federal grants administered by state agencies could cover 10% of the region’s pipe replacement costs, said Dave Wagner, the water service’s engineering division manager. He estimated the service would receive about $5 million a year in grants and $5 million annually in state-administered loans over the next five years for the project. Water price rates would likely have to be raised to cover part of the costs.

Replacing private lead water pipes would cost the average St. Paul-area property owner around $6,000, water service general manager Pat Shea said. Those property owners will likely be required to replace lead water pipes and fixtures, but the water service board members said they intend to use some federal funds to help property owners with those costs.

The city of St. Paul already allows water customers to pay for lead-pipe replacement costs through property taxes over 20 years, but only 5 to 10% of property owners exercise that option.

State agencies will allow cities to decide how to spend federal funds on private subsidies, said Chad Kolstad, the Health Department’s drinking water fund manager. But laws may need to be changed to allow the subsidies.

Removing lead pipes would, however, increase home values, the Health Department reported. It cited a 2017 study that showed money invested in lead hazard reduction results in a return of $2.60 for every $1 spent.

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The cost of replacing all the lead service lines across the country could range from $28 billion to $47 billion, putting the $15 billion approved so far well below that figure. But the infrastructure bill “does provide unprecedented support to states … to kick-start the process,” the Brookings Institution reported.

Lead can leach into water from the pipes, and there is no safe level of lead exposure, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The state Health Department said children are most vulnerable to health impacts from lead exposure because of their developing brains and behaviors. “For infants and children, exposure to lead can cause significant damage to the brain, nervous system, red blood cells and kidneys,” the department said.

City water pipes are a significant contributor to lead in drinking water, but an even more important factor is lead leaching from plumbing fixtures, which generally are controlled by property owners.

In the billions

The Health Department estimated the cost of removing all lead pipes and plumbing fixtures in Minnesota would be $1.5 billion to $4.12 billion over 20 years. But it said the benefits of removing lead from water include “improvements in population mental acuity and IQ (resulting in increases in lifetime productivity, earnings and taxes paid).” It projected the range of benefits at $4.24 billion to $8.47 billion over 20 years. Thus the money spent to reduce lead in drinking water would be expected to yield a return of at least twice the amount of the investment.

The St. Paul water service has been replacing lead pipes for more than 25 years, but only about 400 lines annually, and all of it in rights of way.

The Health Department said most of the lead service lines in Minnesota are located in the Twin Cities and Duluth. It cited reports estimating 49,000 such lines in Minneapolis and 5,000 in Duluth.

But Kolstad said several other Minnesota cities have more than 1,000 lead service lines.

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He said low-income and minority communities will be prioritized for funding because their residents are more likely to be exposed to sources of lead.

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