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Our View: Duluth not waiting to get the lead out

The city is already proactively taking action to deal with and replace outdated lead service lines that threaten to pollute our drinking water.

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John Cole/Cagle Cartoons
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No one living in one of the thousands of Duluth homes built before the Dust Bowl era was probably shocked last week by the city’s “worrisome news,” as the News Tribune described an announcement.

Mayor Emily Larson, Public Works and Utilities Director Jim Benning, and others shared at a press conference that lead levels in older homes in the city are likely to be out of compliance under new rules for lead exposure in drinking water that are set to be put into effect by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2024.

While the high quality of drinking water in Duluth “has not changed,” and while the city remains “in full compliance with EPA and state regulations related to all of our standards for drinking water,” as Benning noted, under the new rules, the city likely would be required to take action.

Encouragingly, it’s action the city already is proactively taking.

As the city leaders and News Tribune explained, there are about 28,000 water customers in Duluth, and about 5,000 of them are in older homes with lead service lines. If lead leaches into the water, of course, it can pose a serious health risk. To know whether that’s happening on any sort of a widespread basis, the city has been checking 30 of those homes every three years, testing the first liter of water drawn from the tap in the morning, after the water has been sitting and settling overnight. If 90% of the homes test below 15 parts per billion for lead, the city remains in compliance — which it has and which it is.

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The new EPA rule, however, is to mandate that the fifth liter of water in the morning, which has more time to absorb lead leaching from a lead service line, be tested instead. In anticipation of the new rule, Duluth has been checking fifth liters, too, and here’s where the “worrisome news” comes in. Of 102 homes tested under the new rules, 30 exceeded 15 parts per billion and 49 exceeded 10 parts per billion.

The 10 parts per billion result would be classified as a “trigger level,” and cities exceeding that trigger level would be required to “optimize” their water systems. The good news for Duluthians, especially those in older homes with lead service lines, is that Duluth already optimizes our water system with approved chemical treatments that minimize lead corrosion.

In addition, cities that exceed lead levels of 15 parts per billion at the 90th percentile are to be required to enact an action plan, including the replacement of at least 3% of lead service lines annually. More good news for Duluthians is that the city is already actively pursuing state and federal assistance to replace both public and private lead lines.

“We’re obviously committed to meeting this challenge head-on,” Benning said, according to the newspaper’s coverage.

"We jumped ahead on the testing, because we wanted to see where we were at," added the mayor. “We got information that would put us out of future compliance. And we want to let people know that. We want to help residents get ahead of this."

In addition to the press conference, the city is notifying residents with known lead service lines. Any resident who fears they’re being missed or who aren’t sure can call the city engineering department at 218-730-5200.

Additionally, anyone with lead service lines is encouraged to run their water briefly in the morning to “bleed their pipes” before drawing water for drinking or cooking. The city is working to offer a credit so residents won’t be billed for water used to bleed pipes. The city also recommends using cold water for drinking and cooking, as hotter water is more likely to contain higher lead levels.

Those are small, sensible precautions that can be taken now by residents — to ease any of this that may seem worrisome. Like the city, water users shouldn’t wait for new standards before taking action.

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Related Topics: OUR VIEWEMILY LARSON
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