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St. Paul's Lead Free campaign offers lead pipe replacement free of charge

The city is using federal money to speed up removal of lead service lines at no cost to homeowners.

ST PAUL, Minn. — The new Lead Free campaign launched by Saint Paul Regional Water Services has a crystal-clear mission.

"This is not complicated, we don't want to have families have lead poisoning," said St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter.

Achieving that mission is the complicated part.

"It is pretty in-depth work," said Patrick Shea, general manager for Saint Paul Regional Water Services (SPRWS). "We like to say we're building the airplane as it's in flight."

Shea says St. Paul and cities across the country have been chipping away at removing old lead pipes and service lines for years, but this effort is different.

"St. Paul Regional Water has been doing the public side, from the watermain to the property line, for really the last 25 years," he said. "But this program goes all the way to individual homes, and it is voluntary and free."

In the past, he says it would cost homeowners an average of $6,000 to replace the lead service lines that extend from their property line into the home. 

But thanks to $14 million in federal money, St. Paul is able to cover the entire cost and replace sections of lead pipe with copper in a much more efficient way.

Shea showed off the process during a community information event on Tuesday.

Kent Erdahl: "How does it actually work? It looks like there's a lot going on right here."

Shea: "It, ideally, will be three holes; three pits. One hole will be in the basement of the house, one at the property line and then there's a hole here in the street. If you're looking in the hole right now, you can see where the service line, the gray lead service line, attaches to the watermain. That line has to be pulled all the way across the street."

Erdahl: "So this silver line coming into that main watermain, is all lead?"

Shea: "That is correct, that is a 100% lead service line. Right now, roughly a quarter of all the service lines in St. Paul are at least partially made of lead."

For Flannery and Bill Miley, the discovery of a lead service line running into their home was a bit unsettling.

"It was a big concern for me, just because of the two little kids," Flannery Miley said.

"When we bought the house 18 months ago, our home inspector scratched the pipe and he said, 'Oh, I can tell it's lead, so you're going to want to replace that,'" Bill Miley said.

They soon learned that they lived in an area that was already in the sights of Lead Free St. Paul. In the meantime, they took precautions and had their two young children tested for lead.

"We were told that if you drink all of your water through filtration, that you should be safe," Flannery Miley said. "So we've just been diligently filtering all of our water, but it's nice to know that the problem is getting fixed sooner than we thought."

Unfortunately, the process won't be a quick for everyone in St. Paul, or others in need of replacement service lines across the state.

In St. Paul, the goal is to replace the remaining 26,000 lead service lines in the next 10 years. The Lead Free campaign will begin with 600 homes this year, and expand to 1,500 by next year.

Statewide, a 2019 report from the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Department of Health estimated there are at least 100,000 lead service lines still in the ground, and it estimated replacement costs of at least $400 million.

"That piece of piping, that relatively small piece of piping, introduces most of the lead that is in the drinking water supplies," said Sandeep Burman, State Drinking Water Administrator for the Minnesota Department of Health.

Burman says even though cities across Minnesota monitor and maintain safe drinking water that is within federal safety thresholds, he says the service line work is still critical to protecting that final step.

"There is no safe level of lead," Burman said. "So that piece of pipe has always been a problem.

If you live in St. Paul and you are looking to sign up for the Lead Free program or check the status of your home, click here.

The Minnesota Department of Health has a variety of online resources for anyone looking for information about lead in drinking water. If you have a lead service line, or lead plumbing in your home, here are some tips for protecting yourself.

  1. Let the water run before using it for drinking or cooking. If you have a lead service line, let the water run for 3-5 minutes. If you do not have a lead service line, let the water run for 30-60 seconds. The more time water has been sitting in your home’s pipes, the more lead it may contain.
    • You can find out if you have a lead service line by contacting your public water system, or you can check by following the steps at: Are your pipes made of lead? Here's a quick way to find out.
    • The only way to know if lead has been reduced by letting it run is to check with a test. If letting the water run does not reduce lead, consider other options to reduce your exposure.
  2. Use cold water for drinking, making food, and making baby formula. Hot water releases more lead from pipes than cold water.
  3. Test your water. In most cases, letting the water run and using cold water for drinking and cooking should keep lead levels low in your drinking water. If you are still concerned about lead, arrange with a laboratory to test your tap water. Testing your water is important if young children or pregnant women drink your tap water. Contact a Minnesota Department of Health accredited laboratory to get a sample container and instructions on how to submit a sample. Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) can help you understand your test results.
  4. Treat your water if a test shows your water has high levels of lead after you let the water run:

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