The Environmental Protection Agency’s safe drinking water rules have been on the books since the early 1990s. Within the last couple of months, new rules have finally been drafted.
But, several North Dakota cities fear many of the changes will do more harm than good.
The safe drinking rules, at their core, were put in place to make sure lead levels in our drinking water are low enough to be considered safe.
Greg Wavra is part of the Department that enforces the rules. He says there are some benefits to the newly proposed guidelines.
Wavra, the Environmental Program Manager for the Department of Environmental Quality’s Drinking Water Program, DEQ shared, “They’re putting a trigger level in so at 10 parts per billion you have to start taking some proactive approaches.”
The re-writes are a result of years of trouble in Flint, Michigan, where citizens were without safe water.
But, Wavra says much of the new rules don’t necessarily work well for North Dakota cities, that don’t have a history of high levels.
“One thing that’s very unique with this rule is it’s putting the water utility right at the tap,” said Bismarck Public Works’ Director of Utility Operations, Michelle Klose.
Klose says in the past, Bismarck Public Works, or the utility as she refers to it, would still test lead levels in homes. They would recommend pipes be replaced in some cases, or at least tap filters be used. But the city’s responsibility basically stopped at the curb.
“The new rule goes to a further step, though, to actually require replacement of these lead service lines, and making the utility responsible for showing that these replacements are taking place. And if a homeowner chooses not to replace their service line, it places the utility at risk of actually not being compliant with the Safe Drinking Act, and that’s really the awkward place we think the EPA is putting utilities in,” Klose explained.
She says corrosion control, or a protective coating the city places on lead pipes, would no longer be a solution recognized by the EPA.
Wavra said, “Let the corrosion control work.”
“Their goal is to have zero exposure to lead. So any type of service line constructed out of lead, that is not something that they want to exist any longer,” Klose explained.
With the new guidelines, anywhere the levels get above 15 parts per billion, cities will have to replace three percent of those lines per year.
The City of Bismarck is in compliance with existing EPA guidelines. They take a sample of 30 homes periodically. The new rule says it has to be 60 lead samples.
“We’re going to be hitting that risk of non-compliance much earlier than we had before,” Klose worries.
Bismarck Public Works is working alongside the Department of Environmental Quality, searching for grant funding to help homeowners with the cost of replacing the lines.
“At least the homeowner can have reduced cost and a little more incentive. When you’re looking at replacing a lead service line, we have rough estimates at between $7,000 to $12,000,” Klose added.
If you would like your home tested for lead, or are curious if your service line is made of lead, she says: just call Public Works.
“Lead in drinking water is not the only place you get lead from. Now, Flint kind of put us on the forefront here for drinking water, but realistically, lead in paint is a much bigger issue,” Wavra emphasized.
He says this is true for our state anyway.
Ultimately, Klose says we should spread city, state and federal resources out to tackle lead across the board.
Wavra stresses these rules are simply a draft at the moment. They won’t be finalized until at least the end of the year. Klose says it could be years.
14 North Dakota cities, including Bismarck and the League of Cities, are drafting a letter to the EPA with these concerns.
The communities who have been working on a combined letter to EPA include:
Bismarck, Minot, Mandan, Grand Forks, Dickinson, Fargo, Williston, Jamestown, Devils Lake, Valley City, West Fargo, Wahpeton, Grafton, Watford City and the North Dakota League of Cities
The EPA’s comment period closes on February 12th.
To submit and review any comments, click here to visit the Federal Register.
Bismarck Public Works services about 22,000 total homes with water. About 900 of these homes have lead service lines.