A new city ordinance would call lead service lines a nuisance and public health threat, allowing the city to require them all to be removed.
That ordinance, which the Common Council could adopt as soon as June 9, is estimated to affect about 16% of the city’s 4,800 water service lines, which are partially or fully made of lead. Stoughton, with many old homes, has a history of testing at levels higher than many nearby communities.
Stoughton Utilities plans to begin a program of abatement of both publicly and privately owned service lines, with the goal of getting private line replacement funded by the state, Stoughton Utilities director Jill Weiss told the council in a May 12 memo. To do so, the city might have to force cooperation of some property owners, it says.
“Without an ordinance manding the replacement of LSLs, staff does not believe that any LSL replacement program will result in success, as we typically see fewer than 10 property owners replace their LSL in any given year,” her memo states.
A water quality test is required by the EPA each year, and if drinking water meets or exceeds 15 parts per billion (ppb), the EPA requires municipalities to take action by replacing lead service lines and educating the public. Stoughton Utilities had requested the ordinance in response to the EPA taking steps beginning in October 2019 to reduce that number to a trigger point of 10 ppb.
“Looking forward, there is no way we will ever reach that 10 parts per billion,” Weiss told the council during a first reading of the ordinance May 26.
The EPA, state Department of Natural Resources and federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all declare there is no safe level of lead in the body. The toxic metal can seep into the drinking water through lead lines and cause long term damage to the kidneys, hearts and affecting cognitive abilities of children, according to the CDC’s website.
Lead pipes were used in Stoughton until the 1950s, and homes constructed after 1960 are unlikely to have private lead water services lines. More than 700 with lead pipes are privately owned, meaning the property owner would be responsible for the cost of upgrading the lines.
Like many cities throughout the state, Stoughton has a history of elevated lead levels because of its lead services lines which carry water into homes.
As recently as 2014, River Bluff Middle School was forced to use bottled water for five months after lead levels were tested at 16 ppb. The city’s levels at the 90th percentile of tested sites have been at or above 10 ppb since 2014 and was at 18 ppb last year.
Neighboring communities are much lower, according to state-mandated water quality reports: Oregon is at 4.9 ppb; Verona is 2.7 ppb and Edgerton 8 ppb. During the 2015 water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the average household had a lead level of 27 ppb.
In June 2019, six of 30 water quality samples tested by Stoughton Utilities in Stoughton’s drinking water exceeded the state Department of Natural Resources standard for lead, causing SU to distribute free water filtration pitchers to homes at high risk.
When SU tests the raw water, it is free of lead and the quality is very high, Weiss told the council. But depending on what type of pipe carries the water to the homeowner – it ends up coming out of the faucet with excess lead levels.
Many private lines
Replacing lead service lines is complicated because a portion of lead service lines are owned privately.
Lead lines are replaced in Stoughton to reduce exposure of lead to Stoughton residents. In 2019, 75 public services lines and five private service lines were replaced, Weiss reported.
Stoughton has 736 private lead service lines, according to SU estimates. The private service line generally runs from the curb stop (shut off valve) to the house.
The city is responsible for replacing roughly 469 of the lead water service lines, or 9% of the city’s total, as they are considered public. While private lead service lines affect only the property owner, the public lead service lines can affect entire neighborhoods or streets.
Under the draft ordinance, the city would notify property owners it is replacing a connecting water main, with a minimum 30- or 90-day notice, depending on whether the connecting line is also lead.
The average cost for a homeowner to replace a water service line is between $3,000 and $5,000, according to an educational packet provided by SU, which adds that it’s working closely with the DNR to ensure there are grants available for homeowners. The grants could pay for 100% of the cost to replace the private service lines.
Alders at the May 26 council meeting thanked Weiss and the SU team for the work on the ordinance, and some even suggested waiving the usual requirement of a second reading. They also thanked Weiss for her work on getting grants.
“If we do get this grant, it is not by accident – it is not falling into our laps,” Ald. Ben Heili
(Dist. 4) said. “A lot of work has gone into this on the utilities side. I thank Jill and the utilities for this.”