City to take action on lead pipes

by Emmitt B. Feldner of The Review staff

PLYMOUTH – The city has to get the lead out – of 91 residential water service pipes in the next year and a half.

That's the mandate from the Department of Natural Resources included in a consent order approved by the City Council Tuesday.

The city's drinking water failed the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) standards for lead last fall and, despite attempts at remediation by Plymouth Utilities since then, failed again earlier this summer.

The consent order requires the city to replace 7 percent of the existing lead service lines from water mains to individual property lines a year until the city water passes the lead test for two consecutive sixmonth testing periods.

With 878 lead service lines in the city, that amounts to 61 lines a year, although the consent order requires the city to do 91 lines by next June 30. City Administrator Brian Yerges told the council that the estimated cost to replace the service lines is $5,000 apiece.

“We do want to inform the public that there is not a high risk level to citizens,” Mayor Donald Pohlman stated. “We are taking steps. These are the older sections (of the city) that have the lead piping. The newer areas do not have lead service pipes.”

“I would have no problem going into anybody's house in the city and drinking the water,” Plymouth Utilities Manager John MacKinnon added. He pointed out that the level in question is 10 parts per billion of lead.

He noted that the testing, under the SDWA, is done in 20 random households in the city, by residents taking water from their taps.

That can lead to high levels of lead being found if there are lead pipes leaching into the water either in the house or from the house to the service line. Lead levels can also be higher if the water is not allowed to run briefly after sitting for any length of time in older to clear lead buildup.

“The thing that concerns me is the cost. That number bothers me,” MacKinnon added.

“Our cost is $5,000 per service line, which is not inexpensive. We provide customers with advice and the cost factor of how to replace (lead) pipes from the service line into the residence, but in these (economic) times it may difficult for customers to replace lead lines,” MacKinnon added.

If the city cannot bring lead levels down in two tests before next July, it will have to replace another 31 lead service lines by the end of 2013 under the consent order, Yerges said.

“We’re looking at replacing 91 lead lines under the best case scenario and the worst case is 122,” he told the council, at an estimated cost of $455,000 to $610,000.

“The scary thing is there is a potential liability of $4.4 million to replace all (lead) lines,” Yerges continued. The city would eventually replace all those lines as streets are redone, but the consent order, if the city cannot come into compliance with the lead testing, would force the city to do that within 14 or 15 years.

The city had been out of compliance with lead level limits in testing in 1995, according to the consent order.

At that time, Plymouth Utilities began “an active lead service line replacement program” and has replaced 95 lead service lines in that period, the order notes.

By 1997, the testing showed compliance again, and testing was reduced to once a year from twice a year.

With lead levels remaining below limits for the next three years, the city was reduced to monitoring every three years in 2002, until the 2011 test when lead levels were back above the federal limits.

At that time, the utilities stepped up treatment of the water designed to reduce the amount of lead leaching from old pipes into the water, but was unable to come into compliance in time to avoid the consent order.

Earlier in their meeting, the council heard a presentation from Phil Cosson, the city’s financial advisor from Ehlers and Associates.

Cosson explained that the city was exploring refinancing a utility bond issue from 2003 to save money by obtaining a lower interest rate.

He showed how the city could add the projected cost of replacing the first 91 lead service lines to the remaining debt on that issue and, by reissuing it as a general obligation bond of the city, still save money on interest payments over the current bond issue.

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