Free Lead Service Line Replacement

Utility faces challenges as it offers to pay the full cost of replacing residents’ lead service lines

Free Lead Service Line Replacement

Kevin Kappers

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While most cities in the United States don’t pay for the entire cost of replacing private lead water-service lines, which have been identified as a significant health hazard, Cincinnati officials have opted to put public health ahead of financial considerations.

In 2021, the Greater Cincinnati Water Works, which provides water to about 1.1 million customers, decided to pay the full cost of replacing lead service lines that run between water mains and customers’ homes and businesses. A series of rate increases in 2021 generated additional revenue to expand the program, which previously paid for only part of the cost, says Kevin Kappers, the utility’s lead program manager.

“I don’t think there are many other programs in cities across the United States that voluntarily pay the cost of replacing lead lines,” he says. “The most successful programs out here are required by the United States Environmental Protection Agency to replace lead lines on a certain schedule.

“We’re not under any regulatory requirements to do this — we’re doing it voluntarily,” Kappers continues. “We decided to put public health ahead of dollars and cents.

“Our goal is to remove any obstacles that keep people from replacing their service lines and the biggest one we saw was cost.”

Tests show that water supplied by the GCWW does not have dangerously high levels of lead. But spurred by the drinking-water crisis that hit Flint, Michigan, about a decade ago, the GCWW in 2016 created a Lead Service Line Replacement Program aimed at the roughly 37,000 service lines that have lead pipes either on the private side or the public and private side.

The city’s original goal was to replace all lead service lines by 2032. But that timeline now is being reassessed, Kappers says.

Public health threat

The utility’s efforts reflect a national crisis. The EPA estimates that anywhere from 6 to 10 million lead service lines need to be replaced nationwide at an average cost of around $4,700 each.

Those numbers suggest that the cost of replacing all those lines would range from $28 to $47 billion, according to a report from the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public-policy think tank.

Furthermore, EPA research shows that the benefits of replacing lead service lines outweighed the cost by about a 4:1 margin. And that doesn’t even account for numerous health benefits the EPA found difficult to account for financially.

The GCWW originally started a service line replacement program in 2016, using both private contractors and in-house crews to do the work. At the time, the utility offered to pay up to 40% of the cost of line replacements, funded by rate-payer revenue, Kappers says.

The replacement program also offered residents what effectively amounted to interest-free loans to pay for their 60% of the replacement cost. Residents could either pay the cost — typically around $3,000 — up front or have it put on their property tax bills and pay in biannual installments over 10 years, Kappers explains.

Additional financial assistance also was available for qualifying low-income customers through a program funded by private donations and fundraisers, as well as rental fees paid by cellphone companies to mount their equipment on city water towers. That generated about $200,000 a year, he says.

“We also received a lot of donations from city employees, which is pretty cool. That shows people believe in the program and think it’s important for the community.”

Poor participation

Sadly, only 4,000 residents have taken advantage of the program since 2016. That low rate of program participation is what prompted the utility to opt for paying the total cost, in hopes that it would motivate more residents to get their lines replaced.

“Because it’s a voluntary program, one of the biggest challenges we face is that we’re at the mercy of customers to allow us to replace the private side of the service lines,” Kappers says.

Current strategies used for community outreach to promote the program have only about a 50% success rate, which is better than previous levels, but still insufficient.

“We don’t have hard data, but we’re trying to determine why people are not signing up,” he says. “We do know that some people are concerned about damage to landscaping and others don’t want the inconvenience of having a contractor in their homes.”

A major part of Kappers’ job right now is to determine exactly why people aren’t taking advantage of the program, then make changes to alleviate those concerns.

“We’re trying to get more hard data behind their reasoning as well as working on strategies to increase program participation,” he notes.

Why not just unilaterally replace the lead lines on, say, a scheduled neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis?

“Making the program mandatory could potentially cause service shut-offs to customers who continue to not participate,” Kappers explains. “This is a sensitive topic that GCWW does not take lightly. So reasonable steps that our program can take to improve participation rates are a more desirable route for the immediate future.”

More work to do

To enhance participation, the utility plans to leverage a citywide resource: neighborhood councils that elect volunteers who then serve as a voice for their communities. There are 52 distinct neighborhoods in Cincinnati and most of them have formed councils, he says.

Kappers hopes that input from these councils, as well as outreach efforts with other community organizations, will help build new momentum for the program, which was slowed a bit by the pandemic, coupled with a citywide hiring freeze and a wave of early retirements at the utility.

“We’re gearing up for the next big push to replace a large volume of lead service lines,” he says. “We want to make our entire community lead safe and my job is to find out how we can do that — remove any obstacles that stop people from participating in our program.

“This reflects our care for our customers. Just like many utilities around the country, our main underlying philosophy is protecting public health. That’s why we exist.”


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