A Kentucky Utility Completes a Multidecade Effort to Remove a Potentially Serious Health Hazard From the Water System

Louisville Water joins an elite group of utilities that have removed all lead drinking water services on the public side of the meter. Now those on the homeowner side are the target.

A Kentucky Utility Completes a Multidecade Effort to Remove a Potentially Serious Health Hazard From the Water System

Louisville Water has systematically replaced all lead water services on the utility side of the meters.

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Lead drinking water services became front-page news after widespread lead poisoning was discovered in Flint, Michigan.

Some water utilities had been tackling lead services aggressively long before the trouble in Flint surfaced in 2016. One of them is the Louisville (Kentucky) Water Co., which in July hit a major milestone, removing the last of the lead service lines on the utility side of the meters.

In all, Louisville Water has removed about 74,000 lead service lines installed between 1860 and 1936. It took more than 50 years and more than $50 million to remove those lines, which were spread throughout the service area but concentrated in older neighborhoods established before the 1940s.

Marking the occasion, Mayor Greg Fischer observed, “This achievement is a great example of how our city innovates. Removing lead pipes from the water system is something that only a handful of cities have accomplished. It shows how Louisville Water distinguishes itself as a national best-in-class water utility.”

Next on the agenda is to encourage and incentivize the removal of lead lines running from the meters into the homes. Spencer Bruce, president and CEO of Louisville Water, and Kelley Dearing Smith, vice president of communications and marketing, talked about the lead-removal initiative in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

Why did Louisville Water undertake this program long before the problem in Flint came to light?

Bruce: We’re in the business of public health. We’ve always known there was a concern about lead in the drinking water. We started replacing lead lines as early as the 1970s. When we did a main replacement, if there was a lead service line, we would replace it at that time. We continued that into the 1980s, and in the 1990s, we hit it hard. We wanted to be ahead of the curve. We like to be ahead on all regulatory issues.

What happened in the 1990s to accelerate the lead line initiative?

Bruce: We kicked off a significant main replacement and rehabilitation program, as well as a main cleaning and lining program. We also started doing block renewals for lead, and we have been doing them ever since. There was an effort in the early 1990s to do an inventory of the lead in our system. Once we got the inventory, we moved into a project where, on average, we spent several million dollars every year to replace the lead lines.

What was involved in taking the inventory of lead services?

Bruce: Our meter readers, inspectors and supervisors went out and inspected every meter vault in the system. Wherever they found a lead line, they documented it. We’ve never found a lead service line for a home built in 1950 or later, so although we looked at every meter vault, we told our people to focus on the older areas of Louisville. We did an inventory again in the mid-2000s, and as we kick off our automated metering infrastructure, we’ll be visiting every meter vault one last time to make sure we didn’t miss anything.

What exactly are block renewals?

Bruce: Based on the inventory, we mapped the system, and each year we replaced the lead lines on selected blocks in the city. We tried to do a representative number of block renewals across the entire city based on funds available in a given year. 

Did the utility offer to test customers’ water for lead levels?

Bruce: In the 1990s, we began to offer lead testing. If any customer wanted a lead test, we absolutely would provide that. If the level was high, then we would do a remediation for that customer. We also helped them determine if they had a private lead service. We didn’t get a lot of takers on the lead analysis until the Flint situation became public. Flint was a game changer.

What happened to the volume of requests for analysis after Flint?

Dearing Smith: When the media around the Flint crisis happened in 2016, we had 147 requests for lead sampling that year. The year before, we only had 30 requests. In 2017 and 2018, we continued with about 150 requests per year. We announced on July 14 that we had replaced all of our lead service lines and were trying to help customers on the private side. We did a press event through a virtual format, we sent out a video press release, and Spencer and I made ourselves available. In that one day, July 14, we had 76 customers contact us to get their water sampled. It even beat the highest we had seen on a single day with Flint.

Do you also deal with lead issues by way of the treatment process?

Bruce: The first line of defense is our treatment strategy to produce chemically stable water. We add lime to achieve a pH of 8.8 and balance the sulfate-to-chloride ratio. We manage that daily, and we also check our distribution system. We are a chloramine system, so we have to manage pH to make sure we have the right residuals all the way though.

How many lead services would you estimate still exist on the private side?

Bruce: We know of approximately 900. We are reaching out to those customers right now with a letter that says they have a lead service line, we have a program that we’re offering, and contact us and we’ll help with that. We have an additional number of homes where we don’t know for sure if they have lead services or not. We’ll be sending letters out to those property owners as a phase 2 component.

What incentives are you offering to encourage replacement of private lead services?

Bruce: We are willing to pay 50% of the cost, up to $1,500, to replace the lead service line. About a year ago, it was 50% up to $1,000, but when we looked at the data, it said the process was a little more expensive than it used to be, and $1,500 is now closer to the 50% mark.

Are there any special provisions for lower-income people who might not be able to afford half of the replacement cost?

Dearing Smith: In addition to the 50% match, if someone doesn’t have the money for half of the cost, we will connect them to the Louisville Water Foundation. We’ve set up funding there, and for people who meet the eligibility requirements, the foundation can pick up the other half.

Bruce: We’ve also applied for some federal grant money to help with the private side.

Have you engaged plumbers as partners in the project, or are property owners free to choose their own contractor?

Bruce: They are free to choose their contractor, but we have written a letter to all the plumbers letting them know about our program. We will offer suggestions of plumbers we have worked with if the customers don’t know who they want to hire.

Do you expect to be doing many private line replacements in the next few years?

Bruce: I don’t think so. You would be amazed, even though we’re offering this program, how many people don’t want to deal with it. They don’t want to mess up their yard or do something to their landscaping. Many people don’t see it as an issue. I expect this program to be on our books for many, many years.

Dearing Smith: Out of the initial set of letters we sent out, maybe 200 total, we only heard from two people. We are doing some follow-up with those customers. We’re sending them a postcard if we haven’t heard from them.

What else are you doing to promote lead line replacement on the private side?

Dearing Smith: The city of Louisville includes a metro council with 26 council districts. We’ve given them the streets in their districts that have private lead service lines, and we’re brainstorming with the council folks on how they can help us get the word out. In addition, the Louisville Metro Public Health Department is a huge advocate for us. As we planned the private program, we kept the director, Dr. Sarah Moyer, and her team in the loop every step of the way. We have had conversations about how they can help promote the program.

What do you see other utilities around Kentucky doing with lead line replacement?

Bruce: They are all concerned about lead. The ones I’m familiar have reviewed their treatment programs and made adjustments if needed. Kentucky has many small rural water systems, and they have other issues to deal with in addition to lead. They’re trying to use their available funds as best they can. In terms of lead replacement, Louisville has been a leader — not only in Kentucky, but across the nation. I believe there are seven total utilities that have worked to replace all the publicly owned lead service lines, and we are certainly one of those.    


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