DULUTH – Citywide testing has found elevated lead levels in dozens of Duluth homes built before 1930, and officials are asking residents who have or may have lead service lines to run a faucet for a few minutes every morning or buy a filter.
"We are currently in full compliance with EPA and state regulations," Jim Benning, the city's director public works and utilities, said at a news conference Tuesday. "The quality of the drinking water has not changed."
But Mayor Emily Larson said recent testing provided "information that would put us out of future compliance" when the Environmental Protection Agency lowers its maximum lead threshold in a few years.
Of about 28,000 water customers in Duluth, there are 4,600 city-owned lead service lines and at least as many private lead service lines, Benning said, which increase the risk of exposure to the toxic metal. (The public line stops at the curb, and the service line between the curb and a home is the property owner's responsibility.)
Of the 102 homes tested this spring, 30 had lead levels above the current EPA limit of 15 parts per billion, and 49 homes were at levels above 10 parts per billion. No neighborhood had higher concentrations than others, and all homeowners with lead service lines will be contacted by the city.
A new EPA standard that will be enforced starting in 2024 sets 10 parts per billion as a "trigger level" that would mandate the city add more chemicals to its water supply to lower the risk of lead contamination, Benning said.
With an average cost of $8,000 to replace the public and private connections, the city is looking at a roughly $40 million price tag to completely remove all lead service lines — the city's ultimate goal and one it has been chipping away at for decades.
"We want to get to the point where we can use public money to help the private side," said Benning, who has asked the mayor to consider putting some of the city's $58 million in American Rescue Plan money toward lead service line replacement. The city is looking at other funding sources as well, Larson said.
Duluth's housing stock is much older, on average, than Minnesota's as a whole. According to census figures, 43% of Duluth homes — 17,000 properties — were built before 1939, compared to 16% of the state's homes.
The use of lead service lines was largely halted in 1929, but Benning said a few might exist in homes built in the years following.
The precise number of properties with private lead service lines is unknown.
Lead exposure can have a wide range of negative health effects and is especially harmful to children under 6 and pregnant women, according to the EPA.
"In the big picture, no amount of lead is the right amount of lead," Larson said. "The vast majority of homeowners and private property owners do not have lead service lines and do not need to be concerned. We're trying to get ahead so we continue to meet the standards that are acceptable and in line with health and the EPA."
The city offers free inspections that can confirm whether a home has a lead service line and if precautions need to be taken. Call 218-730-5200.
Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496