Workers remove a lead service line before it is replaced by a brass one at 15 Wesleyan Ave., in Providence, on Wednesday, May 24, 2023. The removal happened shortly after the City of Providence and Providence Water announced a new program to replace private side lead service lines for free. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)
PROVIDENCE — The hole went about 6 feet deep. After adjusting a hook, a digger pulled back, removing a long, thin, silvery line from the dirt about 20 feet long and an inch in diameter.
Then, in a hole on the other side of the street, construction crews connected a brass line to public water service pipes. Just like that, the multifamily home at 15 Wesleyan Ave. was lead free.
It was the first among thousands expected to participate in a new program announced Wednesday by the city of Providence and Providence Water to enable homeowners in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods to replace private lead water service lines at no cost to themselves.
“We have an old city with old infrastructure,” Providence Mayor Brett Smiley said. “We’ve got a long way to go.”
The program would use $6.4 million in Environmental Protection Agency Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act grants, $400,000 from the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank, and an additional $11.1 million in federal funds allocated for use from fiscal years 2022 to 2024. Officials said they hoped to replace all lead lines in the system within the next five years.
Yet a law that passed out of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on May 23 may very well expand that pool of money.
“We hope the Lead Poisoning Prevention Act passes,” Ricky Caruolo, general manager of Providence Water, said.
The legislation, sponsored by Senate President Sen. Dominick Ruggierio, a North Providence Democrat, would allow for the distribution of $141 million in federal money, obtained via the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, through the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank to help water suppliers and private property owners replace lead water service lines. The bill is slated for a floor vote on May 30.
Lead water supply lines can contaminate drinking water, allowing the metal to enter into a person’s blood system. Children are especially susceptible to lead poisoning, which can lead to mental and learning disabilities.
According to the Rhode Island Department of Health, 2.5% of children in Rhode Island under the age of 6 were diagnosed with lead poisoning in 2020, a steep decline from 14% in 2009.
Until 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defined lead poisoning as having a blood lead level greater than or equal to 5 micrograms per deciliter. That definition was changed to greater than or 3.5 micrograms per deciliter in 2021.
Older housing stock — specifically homes built before 1978, the year lead paint was banned for residential use — is more likely to have lead service lines. At least 10,652 housing structures in Providence’s West End and Southside neighborhoods were built before 1979, according to American Community Survey 2021 five-year estimate data. More than 77% of those were built before 1939.
Until now, property owners were allowed a 10-year, 0% interest loan of up to $4,500. Yet that cost was still prohibitive to many city residents, said Ward 11 City Councilor Mary Kay Harris, within whose district the house sits.
“That’s why many choose not to have it done,” she said. “This is free.”
Providence Water said the majority of the approximately 23,000 private side lead service lines within its service area — which includes Providence, Cranston, Johnston, and North Providence — are concentrated in the capital’s Southside and West End neighborhoods.
Ateesh Chanda, chairman of the Providence Water Supply Board, said 375 private lead service lines were replaced in the Washington Park and Charles neighborhoods during the 2022 construction season. He added that another 350 would be replaced in the Washington Park and Trinity Square neighborhoods this year.
Those outside of economically disadvantaged areas would be offered the 10-year loan at 0% interest.
Action in General Assembly
The program’s launch built on momentum from an event at Lead Poisoning Prevention Day in the State House on Tuesday, May 23. There, lawmakers and activists vouched for several bills focused on lead.
“Our old housing stock is a primary driver of health risks including lead poisoning,” said Katie West, the director of strategic initiatives at the Housing Network of Rhode Island. “Low income children are most at-risk for high lead levels, that’s a legacy of redlining and blocked access to economic opportunities.
“We can do better in Rhode Island.”
Deputy Majority Whip Rep. Mia Ackerman, of Cumberland, is pushing for legislation, H6239, which would require landlords to obtain lead safety certificates for properties built before 1978. It would also create a statewide registry of properties built before 1978.
“My bill is just part of what we’re working on,” Ackerman said at the event.
Deputy Attorney General Adi Goldstein said Tuesday that while Rhode Island already had laws related to lead on the books, the package of lead poisoning prevention bills would create consequences for noncompliant property owners.
“The problem is not the laws, the problem is compliance with the laws and what this slate of bills does is it gives our laws some teeth,” Goldstein said. “These bills ensure that landlords remediate lead in their homes.
“The health consequences are too serious.”
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