Listen: Lead pipes

As part of MPR's “Trouble in the Water” series, MPR’s Lorna Benson reports on the replacement process of lead pipes in St. Paul’s drinking water system.

Report is eighth in an eight-part series.

Click links below for other parts of series:

part 1:

part 2:

part 3:

part 4:

part 5:

part 6:

part 7:


2016 MBJA Eric Sevareid Award, award of merit in Series - Large Market Radio category


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SPEAKER: MPR News has taken you all around the state this month, looking at threats to our water. Today we're in the metro area to explore a pollution issue that challenges many older cities corroding lead pipes in the water system. Drinking water contamination in Flint, Michigan has put the spotlight once again on the dangers of lead, especially to young children. Lorna Benson reports now on an ambitious plan in Saint Paul to get rid of thousands of lead service lines. The approach is not a perfect solution and may be beyond what some cities can afford.

LORNA BENSON: This usually quiet street in Saint Paul's Frogtown neighborhood has been humming for an hour with the dull drone of a backhoe. Tony Palumbo's water utility crew has already opened a hole 7 feet deep under the sidewalk outside a small rental house, and their target has just come into view.

TONY PALUMBO: Stuck in the tree root, Randy?

LORNA BENSON: Barely visible among the tangle of roots and dark soil is an old lead pipe about as big around as a quarter. It's one of 14,000 lead service lines the water utility owns. It's probably 100 years old. Saint Paul installed lead pipes until 1927. This pipe is in fine shape, but Palumbo's crew will rip it out anyway, replace it with a copper pipe, and move on to the next one.

TONY PALUMBO: We're picking away every day at them.

LORNA BENSON: The trace amount of lead in Saint Paul's drinking water is below federal limits, but the crisis in Flint will likely pressure regulators to lower them further. That's because research now shows there is no safe level of lead exposure. If federal drinking water standards are tightened, Saint Paul could slip out of compliance again.

20 years before Flint hit the national news, the EPA told Saint Paul it had too much lead in its water. The city struggled mightily to lower lead levels in its drinking water to meet the EPA standard, but the effort took too long, and the agency forced Saint Paul to remove 7% of its lead service lines for three years in a row.

JIM BODE: No one likes to fail.

LORNA BENSON: Jim Bode was working in the water plant's laboratory back then.

JIM BODE: There was a violation, is a failure in our industry. So yeah. It was stressful.

LORNA BENSON: But Bode, who is now a water quality manager at the plant, says the utility emerged from its lead crisis stronger and with a key insight.

JIM BODE: We need to have water that is slightly scale-forming.

LORNA BENSON: Turns out the scale that can clog household pipes is an ally in the war against lead. Scale prevents the corrosion that leaches lead particles into water. At the utilies treatment plant 3 miles north of Downtown Saint Paul, murky surface water flows through a series of indoor pools, where it softened, filtered, and ultimately treated with a chemical that raises the water's pH.

JIM BODE: In these four tanks are the sodium hydroxide that we use to make that final pH adjustment to our water.

LORNA BENSON: Raising the water's pH allows a thin coat of scale to form inside the lead service lines. It took a while for Saint Paul to perfect its method, but the pH strategy is working well now and is largely responsible for the utility's success in driving down its lead levels to below federal limits.

And this is where the story runs into a paradox. Ripping out lead pipes can actually raise lead levels in drinking water. That's because Saint Paul can only replace the utility owned segment of a lead service line. The homeowners' portion, the line from the sidewalk into the home, may still be led. Anna Schliep with the State Health Department's Drinking Water Protection Program has only a mixed endorsement of Saint Paul's replacement effort.

ANNA SCHLIEP: In some ways, it's a good thing because you're getting some lead out. In some ways, it's a bad thing because you could be causing a temporary lead release.

LORNA BENSON: Cutting a lead service line can cause flaking in the protective scale lining a lead pipe no matter where the cut occurs, and flaking can last for months. The Saint Paul Water Utility urges their customers to replace their section of pipe at the same time, but fewer than half do.

STEVE SCHNEIDER: It's not an inexpensive fix.

LORNA BENSON: Steve Schneider is general manager for Saint Paul Regional Water Services. He says the homeowner's replacement cost averages $3,000 to $4,000.

STEVE SCHNEIDER: Some people just write the check out. But there are a lot of folks that can't do that. And that is I think what most people that are elected officials are struggling with.

LORNA BENSON: Saint Paul has been replacing its lead service lines for nearly 20 years. The work the EPA demanded never stopped. But the risk of doing so has only recently been recognized. So because of these unintended consequences, crews replacing lead pipes just started handing out water filters.

TONY PALUMBO: Good morning, sir. How are you? So I have a pitcher for you since we're going to do a lead replacement.

RONALD MENDOZA: Oh, OK. So it's a new program we're doing.

LORNA BENSON: Back in the Frogtown neighborhood, Tony Palumbo catches Ronald Mendoza as he's about to take his two young daughters to school. The 34-year-old listens intently as Palumbo explains that the family might have a lead hazard for a few months.

TONY PALUMBO: So additional flushing. And then this pitcher, when you drink and cook, will help filter that lead out.

LORNA BENSON: He then hands three filters to Mendoza and tells him that should get him through the next six months. Despite the known lead risk, the utility is sticking with its replacement plan. Water quality manager Jim Bode says it's possible that the EPA may eventually require all lead water pipes to be replaced. And if that happens, Saint Paul will be ahead of the game.

JIM BODE: If you're going to get rid of all the lead pipe eventually, we have to do our portion of it, right? So there's no sense in delaying that we feel, as long as we can manage and educate our public and manage the minimize the risk for them.

LORNA BENSON: Minneapolis also has lots of lead service lines, and very few of them have been replaced. But lead levels in city water samples are so low, they're barely detectable. Remember that protective scale we were talking about? Minneapolis uses a different chemical that's really effective at building scale on its lines. It's called orthopolyphosphate. But it's also effective at contributing to potentially toxic algal blooms in lakes and rivers.

And the Minneapolis water system differs from Saint Paul's in another way city. Water quality manager George Kraynick says the homeowner owns the entire service line, and most don't have a lead problem.

GEORGE KRAYNICK: And how do you sell that to a customer and make them say, you got to pay us $4,000 to remove this because that's just the way it's going to be?

LORNA BENSON: And Kraynick says at this point, citywide replacement doesn't make sense.

GEORGE KRAYNICK: We know we don't have an issue out there. So how do you make the pitch to get money to replace these service lines that for all intents and purposes are perfectly fine? Until Flint came along, and they now, they say no level of lead is safe in the water and things like that.

LORNA BENSON: Still, most water experts agree Flint will force tougher lead regulations, even for problem-free cities like Minneapolis. Whether it's a lower testing threshold, new water treatment requirements, or a mandate to remove lead lines altogether, older cities will likely face new expectations and big bills. And they probably won't have a lot of time to adjust. New rules could come within the year. Covering health, I'm Lorna Benson, Minnesota Public Radio News.


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