Agency opens $100 million fund to remove lead water pipes

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BOSTON – The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority on Monday announced a $100 million fund to provide interest-free loans that communities served by the agency can use to replace any remaining lead service pipes in their water systems.

The program adds to treatment and other steps, including effective corrosion control, by the agency since 1996 to ensure the safety of its supplies to member cities and towns. Since at least 2004, water from the system has tested below lead levels that require remedial action.

But the agency said water delivered to homes in some communities has exceeded that level, and pointed out that many homes still have lead service pipes connecting to municipal systems. Lead can leach out of pipes and enter the water supply under certain conditions.

In Flint, Michigan, lead entered the municipal water supply after the source was changed to the Flint River, which provided more acidic water to the system, causing lead to leach from pipes there. The crisis that situation created has raised awareness of the potential for lead contamination around the nation. Lead in water supplies can lead to elevated levels of the element in young children, a potential cause of brain and nervous system damage.

While lead hasn’t been used in pipes for decades, the Massachusetts water agency estimates that as many as 28,000 service lines out of 500,000 still in use contain lead.

The State House News Service reported Monday that there are 5,687 lead service lines still in use in Peabody, 5,205 in Malden, 3,800 in Medford, 3,567 in Boston, 2,298 in Somerville, 1,400 in Winthrop, 1,310 in Quincy, 1,238 in Marlborough, 1,161 in Newton, and 772 in Melrose. Other communities served by the agency report 250 or fewer lead lines, the News Service said.

“The loans being provided by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority will allow communities to take the steps necessary to modernize their drinking water infrastructure, and keep Massachusetts’ families safe and healthy,” Gov. Charlie Baker said in a statement about the loan program.

Replacing a lead service line typically costs $3,000 to $5,000, the agency said, so it estimates that the $100 million fund will be enough to finance replacement of all the remaining lead lines in the communities it serves. However, the loans won’t be made to projects that only replace the public part of a line, the agency said.

“This will allow those communities that are successful in getting homeowners to participate to move quickly in replacing those lines,” Fred Laskey, the agency’s executive director, said in the statement. The no-interest loans are repayable over 10 years.

Under the proposal each community will develop its own program to tailor to their local circumstances. Spending will depend on the level of interest by both communities and homeowners.

Financial assistance programs for member communities already exist to improve local water systems.