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Cities weigh options after state says certain lead line replacements should be avoided

A worker holds a lead service line removed from a home in Flint.
Mark Brush
Michigan Radio

The state is now recommending that cities avoid replacing only part of a water service line if it's made of lead. Partial replacements aren’t uncommon.

Typically the municipality only owns part of the line, the part from the water main to the property line. This is the publicly owned portion of the service line. In this case, the part of the line that runs from the public right of way into a home is the privately owned portion of the line.

Usually it’s cities that cover the costs of replacing the public portion of the line. Homeowners would likely have to chip in major money to replace the rest. But many times they can’t or don’t want to pay for it. So only part of the line is replaced.

Research shows that partial replacementscan make lead levels in water spike. In 2010, the CDC concluded that partial line replacements in Washington D.C. may have caused more harm than good.

A couple of weeks ago Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality’s director told municipal water systems they should avoid partial replacements. At the same time, the letter encouraged communities to develop “a plan to identify and replace all lead components in the supply’s distribution system, including the privately-owned portion of the service lines.”

The recommendations and their potential consequences are causing water systems to weigh their options and priorities heading into the construction season.

Grand Rapids is moving ahead as planned on projects already underway that include partial service line replacements, according to Water System Manager Joellen Thompson. But they’re looking at options to “facilitate full replacement, or other types of response.”

“We are replacing the water mains on these projects, so we really have to replace our side of the service lines,” Thompson said.

It’s not just Grand Rapids. Jeff Castro, the Director of the Ypsilanti Community Utilities Authority, says other system operators face a similar conundrum. He heard from them after he sat on an industry panel last month.

“They tell me ‘we just hired a contractor to do this project,” that includes some partial replacements.

“So they ask me ‘what would I do?’ and I stated ‘I really can’t answer that,” Castro said.

He says it would depend on a lot of factors; how big the project was, how many lines there were to be replaced and where, and what contractor was doing the work.

"We all have a goal. Our goal is to remove lead service lines. But they have to have a plan on how they’re going to remove the lead services and how they’re going to flush and sample,” Castro said.

“If it was me, depending where those lead service lines are at, we will replace service leads, even if it is a partial. But we’re going to do it the right way. That’s our goal. We can’t be walking on eggshells,” he said.

Ypsilanti has been actively replacing water mains and all non-copper lines as other construction projects are completed since 1998. He says they would notify customers in writing if they were hooked up to a non-copper line and suggest the owner get their portion of the water service line replaced.

They asked homeowners to consider working with the contractor as the city replaced the publicly owned portion. Castro says most declined, but many replaced the private portion later.

Castro estimates there are only a few dozen publicly owned service lines made of lead left in his community.

“In the future, when we have another water main replacement, and if we do find a lead service, we will work with the customer so we can replace both our side and their side at the same time. That’s the changes that I’m making,” he said.

He thinks a little more, or better, communication from the utility on the importance of replacing the full water service line will help inform residents, and convince them it’s worth the cost and hassle to replace the entire service line. 

Lindsey Smith helps lead the station'sAmplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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