Pendleton has an estimated 900 lead water service lines among its full inventory of more than 2,000. Town officials believe most of them are located in or near the historic business district downtown. Andy Knight | The Herald Bulletin
Pendleton has an estimated 900 lead water service lines among its full inventory of more than 2,000. Town officials believe most of them are located in or near the historic business district downtown. Andy Knight | The Herald Bulletin
PENDLETON — A decade ago, a water crisis in Flint, Michigan, cast a spotlight on a public health issue that experts say continues to ripple through decisions and operations in towns and cities of all sizes across the country.

Ensuring that supply lines carrying and storing drinking water either remain or become free of lead is frequently a cumbersome and costly process. It is also a vital one, as city and regional planners stress the importance of having up-to-date infrastructure to accommodate burgeoning residential and commercial growth in many communities.

For Madison County communities and others in similar situations, a new Indiana law may begin to unravel regulatory red tape and other hindrances that are slowing the replacement of lead water lines.

Senate Enrolled Act 5, which passed both houses in the General Assembly unanimously and was signed into law by Gov. Eric Holcomb in March, will allow utility companies with lead line service replacement plans approved by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission to replace lead pipes more quickly, efficiently and inexpensively.

“It’s going to be a shot in the arm for rural communities…to be able to identify lead service lines and get those replaced in a quick manner,” said Elwood Mayor Todd Jones.

“There have been regulations that have been put in place for several years now,” said Denise McKee, assistant planning director for the Town of Pendleton. “Having more funding sources from the state and federal levels is huge for a community like ours.”

Following a requirement by state law, officials in Pendleton are in the midst of compiling a comprehensive inventory of the town’s existing lead service lines. The project, according to McKee, consists of three phases and is being funded by state grants. The first phase, she said, revealed a preliminary inventory of more than 2,000 water service lines in the town’s utility customer base. About 900 of those are estimated to be located in the historic downtown district.

A preliminary engineering report, part of the second phase, is expected to provide some initial direction on the process of replacing those lines.

The report, McKee said, “will take a look at our approach of how we’re going to address those improvement needs.”

She said it remains to be seen if or how the new law will expedite lead water service line replacement in Pendleton. The process of verifying which lines have lead-based construction in them can be a painstaking one, she noted.

For example, homes built before 1986 — when the federal government banned the use of leaded pipe and solder in new plumbing system construction — may or may not have lead lines in them.

“Any newly constructed homes after that date, we can assume that they’re not leadbased,” McKee said. “However, we still need to track whether those lines are PVC, copper, lead or galvanized.”

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act passed in 1974, cities and water utilities have been responsible for compiling inventories of their lead service lines. But in many places, without excavating the pipes, officials have had to make educated guesses as to the composition of those lines.

“For some neighborhoods, they just kind of have to make estimates based on the age of buildings,” said Dr. Indra Frank, environmental health and water policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council.

Frank acknowledged testimony given during hearings on SEA 5 affirmed that replacing all of the state’s roughly 265,000 lead water service lines could potentially cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take more than a decade.

“Some of the cost would be aided by some money that would come from the federal level,” she said, “but even with those funds, the estimates we were hearing were far in excess of what would come in from the federal level.”

Research suggests that, despite the potentially steep costs, the investment would be worthwhile. An Environmental Protection Agency analysis found that reducing the amount of lead permitted in drinking water by 60% would achieve benefits including avoided medical expenses, reduced compensatory education costs and increased lifetime earnings.

“The whole reason that we’re going through this is that lead is highly toxic to the human nervous system,” Frank said. “When drinking water sits in a lead pipe for awhile, that lead can potentially leech into the water.”

Officials in Pendleton emphasize that access to safe drinking water is fundamental to the town’s efforts to attract and manage its growth.

“Our concern and the priority of quality of life and health of our community members is at the forefront of every decision we make and every project we take on,” McKee said.
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