By Barbara Taormina
Lead water lines were back on the city’s agenda this week as city councilors discussed the progress that’s been made on replacing pipes, and the work that still needs to be done.
Councillor-at-Large Steve Winslow proposed a meeting with the City Council, Mayor Gary Christenson’s office and the Water Department so that the city can develop a strategy to complete the work of replacing all lead water pipes.
Winslow said a new report from Christenson’s office shows some great successes. The city is under a consent decree with the state to replace 150 lead service lines each year. Both lead water lines on city property and lead pipes on private property must be updated to be counted as one of the 150 replacements required annually. This year, the city replaced 226 lead service lines or 76 more than what was mandated by the state. However, there are still approximately 3,000 more lead service lines that need to be replaced.
Winslow and other councillors believe that the city is ahead of schedule in part because of an ordinance passed last year that required owners to replace lead pipes on their property before a sale of that property. The ordinance also requires lead pipes to be replaced if an owner is planning building renovations valued at $30,000 or more. Lead water pipes must also be changed when new tenants move into a non-owner-occupied multifamily home.
“I think we’ve had the wind at our backs with the strong real estate market,” said Winslow, adding that it’s the council’s responsibility to make sure the city doesn’t fall behind in addressing the health threat posed by lead water pipes.
Winslow urged fellow councilors to consider a strategy to keep the pipe replacement work moving forward, especially if the economy, and particularly the housing market, starts to cool down. And even if property sales continue to help the city to meet its mandate of 150 public side/private side pipe replacements each year, Winslow suggested more needs to be done. “If we stay at 150 replacements a year, it will take us 20 years to do this,” he said.
The problem is the same as it has been since the city first learned that both private and public lead pipes must be replaced. Many property owners are either unwilling or unable to pay for new lead-free water pipes on their property. Last year, city officials estimated that a property owner’s average cost to do the work would run between $3,500 and $5,000.
The Malden Redevelopment Authority (MRA) has a zero-interest loan program to help low-and-moderate income property owners replace privately-owned lead pipes, but it’s unclear if residents are taking advantage of that funding.
Ward 1 Councillor Peg Crowe suggested that someone from the MRA join the upcoming discussion and update the council on the status of the loan program. “If nobody has taken the loans, we need to know how we can tweak the program to make people want to do that,” she said.
Other councillors mentioned the need for a funding source to assist property owners with lead pipe replacements. Ward 4 Councillor Ryan O’Malley suggested the city ask the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority for a revolving loan program that would include loan forgiveness.
Still, it may be difficult to find enough public funding for loans to cover the scope of the remaining lead pipe work.
“Other than us forcing an ordinance that says you have 36 months to change the pipes, there’s not much we can do,” said Councillor-at-Large Craig Spadafora. “If we pass that ordinance, we’ll have people who are happy with us, and people who are not happy with us.”
Spadafora said it would be helpful to have a list of outstanding properties by type that have yet to upgrade water pipes. He suggested that the city could start by forcing commercial property owners to replace lead pipes. The city could then tackle non-owner-occupied multifamily properties, and ultimately move on to require pipe replacements for owner-occupied single and two-family homes.
Spadafora suggested it is unlikely that people would pursue a loan even if it’s interest free. “I think we need to start with the large properties,” he said. “We have to start forcing some of these property owners to make the change.”