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What it’ll take to remove lead pipes in New Hampshire in the next 10 years

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An old housing stock and old drinking water infrastructure mean lead remains a big concern in New Hampshire.

The Biden Administration recently revealed new funding and a proposal that every state in America needs to remove lead lines carrying water within the next 10 years. Lead and galvanized pipes, or joint connectors for water service lines, including lines serving residential and business properties, need to be replaced by copper lines.

The main challenge to making that switch in New Hampshire are private residential water lines, said Cynthia Klevens, engineering section manager for the state's environmental services department drinking water & groundwater bureau.

Replacing water lines to homes can be a financial burden on homeowners and landlords. The new proposal from the federal Environmental Protection Agency will potentially include federal funding to offset costs to replace private lines.

“Traditionally we had only done part of the service line, so most of our municipalities have already taken care of any lead components that they knew of up to what was owned by the utility,” Klevens said. “This is the first time that we're funding all the way up to the homeowner meter.”

The tricky part about removing lead lines is that the construction phase can agitate particles, increasing the amount of lead in the water, which is one reason why the proposed rule calls for a complete lead pipe replacement.

Klevens also said the new requirement calls for an inventory of lead lines across the state, due by October 2024.

Lead disturbance was part of an awareness campaign, called “Operation Get the Lead Out” from the city of Claremont when they decided to remove lead pipes back in 2017.

It included meetings, talking with residents who may have been hesitant about changing their pipes, and providing filters and guidance on how to proceed with the process.

Charlene Lovett, former mayor of Claremont, says a network of business leaders and experts kept people informed on why the process was happening.

“Based on the data collected from DHHS, we knew that we had a problem in the community,” Lovett said. “We knew from the testing that children were being poisoned by lead here in Claremont. And that's why we wanted to get way ahead of this.”

At the time, Claremont had been identified as a town that had higher risk of lead poisoning in children due to the number of aged housing and factors like poverty and children participating in the Medicaid program.

As a mother, Lovett said knowing the impact lead has on kids really bothered her.

“I had a young daughter and I thought, these kids are being poisoned and nobody's doing anything about it, so we decided to do something about it,” Lovett said.

Claremont was ahead of the curve when city officials decided to replace old water infrastructure. In part, they had a detailed inventory of their water system that allowed the town to keep track of close to 150 lead lines in operation.

Lead in young children can cause all sorts of problems, said Heidi Trimarco, staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation. She specializes in clean air and water initiatives including protecting kids from lead poisoning.

Trimarco said that as a result of laws that require testing for lead, 40% of samples have found lead in school and childcare facilities. Lead isn’t just found in homes but in the public spaces kids' use.

“Lead exposure is entirely preventable,” Trimarco said. “It can lead to cognitive problems and learning disabilities and impair social development. They can have permanent, irreversible harm.”

In Trimarco’s line of work they test children ages 1 to 2 years-old routinely for lead exposure. If found, they work to find the source.

In New Hampshire, 535 children had elevated lead levels from 2017 to 2021, per year.

“We should be removing the lead first and investigating our homes and our lead pipes for lead and fixing it first, and not using children to test for the presence of lead,” Trimarco said.

While the biggest sources of lead in New Hampshire come from homes and places that still have lead paint, Trimarco said lead from water sources is still an important issue to address.

Olivia joins us from WLVR/Lehigh Valley Public Media, where she covered the Easton area in eastern Pennsylvania. She has also reported for WUWM in Milwaukee and WBEZ in Chicago.
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