Providence Water gets $3.3M more in federal grant money to replace lead service lines

·4 min read

PROVIDENCE – Teofilo and Patricia Montalvo had been waiting years to replace the lead pipes that provide drinking water to their century-old house in Lower South Providence, but they were put off by the $4,500 cost.

So when Providence Water started a program using federal grant money to put in new lead-free service lines in their neighborhood at no cost to homeowners, they were quick to sign up.

“I appreciate this. Lead is no good,” Teofilo Montalvo, an 80-year-old retired welder, said Monday in front of a hole in the sidewalk off Potters Avenue that workers had used to lay the new line.

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More of the Montalvos’ neighbors will soon have the chance to do what they did thanks to a $3.3-million earmark for Providence Water that was included in the infrastructure bill passed by Congress last year.

U.S. Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse gathered with leaders of the state’s largest water utility outside the Montalvos’ house to highlight the type of work the money will be used for.

What the money is being used for

Water that leaves Providence Water’s treatment plant in Scituate has no detectable levels of lead. Under certain conditions, however, when lead pipes corrode, they can contaminate drinking water. The most notorious recent case in the United States was in Flint, Michigan in 2014.

While Providence Water stopped installing lead pipes in the 1940s, thousands of lead service lines are still in use. The majority are in Providence and Cranston, but some are in other parts of the utility’s distribution area, including in Johnston and North Providence.

Lead is most dangerous to young children whose brains are still developing. Once poisoned, they can suffer long-term consequences that include a lower IQ, reduced attention span and learning difficulties.

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The earmark comes on top of the $6.4 million in money from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that is already being used to replace lead water pipes for free in the neighborhoods around Washington Park and Charles Street in Providence. The areas were selected for the program because they are considered economically disadvantaged by the state, according to Providence Water general manager Ricky Caruolo.

That initial round of funding has so far paid for the replacement of 124 lead service lines, with hundreds of additional locations still eligible. The additional money is expected to cover the cost of replacing 730 lines.

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The nearly $10 million that has come through so far is just the start. The infrastructure package allocates another $141 million to Rhode Island for lead service line replacement. Providence Water estimates that the money would fund the replacement of 31,000 lead service lines.

The huge injection of funding could mean that within five years Providence Water will be able to replace all the remaining lead service lines in its distribution area.

“That’s our goal,” Caruolo said.

How the water service lines work

Water service lines are divided into two parts: public and private. The public portion runs from the water main buried under the street up to the boundary of a private property. The private portion continues from that boundary into a home or business. A valve separates the two portions.

The public side is owned by the utility and replacement of the line is the utility’s responsibility. Over the last 15 years, Providence Water has spent $76 million to replace public lead service lines. About 9,300 still remain.

Replacing the private side has been more difficult. There are still about 25,000 private lead service lines that are still in use. In 2017, Providence Water partnered with the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank to create a zero-interest loan program to help customers pay for new private lines. Two years ago, the utility extended the term of the loan from three years to 10.

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So far, 1,264 customers have signed up for the loan program, but, recognizing that not everyone can afford the average monthly payments of $37.50, the utility set up the free replacement initiative.

The money allocated so far will be a big boost for the work.

“That’s a very important first step, but it certainly cannot be the last step,” Reed said.

To check if your house has a lead service line, call Providence Water at 521-6303 or look online at the utility’s lead service line location map. If you live in the Washington Park or Charles Street neighborhoods and are interested in having your lead service line replaced for free, you can also call the number listed above.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Providence Water receives federal grant money to replace lead pipes