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Cities are tackling lead line replacement at a significant price tag

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Posted at 10:27 PM, Nov 03, 2021

MICHIGAN — Flint put lead line replacement in the national spotlight years ago, and Benton Harbor shines more light on Michigan's crumbling water infrastructure.

In 2018, Benton Harbor community groups pushed the state to respond to lead found in people's homes. A new 23-page joint report by the EPA and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy shows multiple violations inside the decades-old water plant. 

The state has committed to remove and replace all Benton Harbor lead lines in 18 months. It's a similar push that the state mandated to remove all lead lines out in 20 years, which started this year. 

"The bill is coming due, and we've got to figure out a way to get it paid," Eric Oswald, director of the Drinking Water and Environmental Health Division, said.

The state has an early estimate this could cost in total around the $2 billion range.

"We've disinvested in infrastructure across the board and water drinking... water infrastructure in particular over the last 50 years," Oswald told FOX 17.

The state is in the process of making up for the lost time. EGLE shows hundreds of thousands of known and possible connections to lead lines that need to come out of the ground over the next two decades.

"At a price tag of about $5,000 apiece and the state, which was a $2.5 billion bill that somebody had to come up with over 20 years," Oswald added.

READ MORE: City of Benton Harbor ordered to fix water plant

Some would consider this a small price tag compared to how much harm lead can do to our bodies. Lead is a known neurotoxin to cause damage to the brain, liver and bones.
"So, you're only one mistake, one little error away from exposing children and pregnant women and other folks to lead, and you know, we don't want to take that risk," Oswald said.

FOX 17 did some digging on where lead lines are throughout West Michigan. Grand Rapids, Muskegon, Holland, Hastings, Battle Creek and Benton Harbor need more than 25% of the lines replaced because they have known or possible lead connections.

Wayne Jernberg, with the Grand Rapids water systems, is already crunching the numbers.

"$140 million project, you know, over 20 years, and that's a pretty big project to take on without some level of significant financial help," Jernberg said.

RELATED: Michigan's 'Lead and Copper Rule' expediting state's lead-removal efforts

"It's gonna be tough. Really tough. Yeah. I'm not gonna say yes or no because I don't know what the funding sources are out there."

It's funding that the whole state is now competing over. Municipalities are now vying for federal and state grants to help alleviate the stress on water rates. To allow cities not to burden customers too much, the state is looking for cities to meet a 5% reduction yearly.

In July 2020, Muskegon added a five-dollar charge on its monthly water bill, the focus of going directly to replacing lead lines.

"I think if we maintain the $5, I feel like we're pretty comfortable that that along with some redirection of our existing water funds is going to get us in the, you know, 2% range to maybe 3% range on a year-to-year basis," Muskegon Public Works Director Leo Evans told FOX 17.

Right now, they have a grant that's going to help over the next three years to make up additional funding to meet that 5% goal, Evans added.

"To cover the full 5% funded by the state, we would have needed approximately a $20-a-month charge, which would have doubled or tripled a lot of people's water bills," Evans said.

In an email to FOX 17, Kalamazoo states that they have replaced around 3,000 lead service lines since 2015. The city concluded that it is finishing the East Kalamazoo LSLR project by May 2022 and then transitioning to the North Kalamazoo project.

Like many city leaders, cities have tied other projects to make the best of time and resources. Holland added they started removing lead goosenecks in 2019 as they began work on a water main replacement project.

Officials worry those costs could go even higher as supply and demand begin to increase. The lines both cities are replacing with are made of copper.

"It's something that last year cost me $5,000. To do a service line gonna cost me $8,000. To do a service line when there's, you know, 30 other communities trying to hire the same contractor," Evans said.

EGLE has a process for cities to ask for an extension on this 20-year plan as long as they submit an asset management plan that shows they can't afford it and gives them a firm timeline of when they'll finish. At this point, they haven't received any.

RELATED: Benton Harbor residents: Pick up bottled water at these locations (Nov. 4–8)

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