Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership
Most Minnesotans in the Twin Cities don’t have to worry too much about what’s flowing through the pipes in their home. The area’s utilities filter water from the Mississippi River, carefully managing pH and chemical composition to provide clean, readily drinkable water. But for more than 25,000 households in and around Saint Paul, water isn’t always safe because of the very service lines it flows through – pipes made of lead.
The good news: Saint Paul’s water utility has announced a plan to replace all lead water service lines, both publicly and privately owned, within the next ten years.
The danger of lead
It’s no exaggeration to say that the way the world used lead in the 20th century – and in some places, continues to do so – is one of history’s greatest public health tragedies. Lead in gasoline poisoned entire generations through vehicle fumes. Lead in water pipes and paint continues to threaten millions of people, with children, low-income and communities of color suffering the worst effects.
No level of lead in the bloodstream is safe, but the higher the levels, the worse the effects. It can cause organ damage and impair children’s brain development, making victims especially likely to suffer from behavioral and other psychological problems. Some scientists have advanced a “lead-crime hypothesis,” arguing that higher levels of lead exposure can contribute to higher levels of crime.
In the United States, we’ve largely done away with using lead in gasoline (except in small aircraft), water pipes, or paint. But there’s plenty of existing and actively harmful lead in homes, especially in older housing. Water service lines are the most visible example, and one of the key targets of our efforts to get the lead out.
There are ways to mitigate drinking water exposure to lead. Utilities can control pH to help a protective film form over pipes to prevent corrosion. Families can use water filters and run the tap for a few minutes each day to minimize exposure.
But not everyone knows if they have lead in their pipes, and filters can’t always get everything. Again, no level of lead in the body is safe. The only surefire way to prevent exposure is to remove the service line and replace it with copper. That can be complicated – in most homes, the utility only owns part of the service line, while the section on the private property is privately owned.
MEP’s recent work in Duluth helped shine a spotlight on lead exposure from water pipes. Since then, the City of Duluth has expanded its effort to test, map, and replace its lead service lines. We’ve also lobbied the Legislature to Get the Lead Out, including supporting efforts to replace all lead service pipes within 10 years across the state. Today, we’re glad to see Saint Paul on the cusp of tackling their lead lines problem once and for all.
Saint Paul’s plan
Saint Paul Regional Water Services serves the city of Saint Paul and several suburban areas surrounding it. For some time, SPRWS has helped residents find out if they have lead service lines both inside and outside their house and given them options to replace them. But in most cases, the cost to replace the section on private property, including inside the house, still falls on the consumer, whether paid upfront or over time.
Now, thanks to $200 million in federal infrastructure dollars, consumers may soon be off the hook. Starting this year, SPRWS will begin replacing lead service lines entirely free of charge. Residents who wish to replace their service lines earlier can still do so.
That $200 million is money extremely well-spent. A 2019 Minnesota Department of Health report estimated that removing all lead service lines from Minnesota homes would cost as much as $365 million, but the benefits to the state would be much higher.
Getting the lead out means lower medical costs, lower rates of childhood developmental disabilities, and higher quality of life for thousands of people. In a state where low-income and communities of color are especially at risk of lead poisoning, it’s also one of the most positive actions we can take for environmental justice.
MEP will continue to advocate for Minnesota to invest in lead service line replacement around the state. For now, we’re glad to see “the most livable city in America” becoming a safer place to live.
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