NEW BEDFORD — City Council President Ian Abreu wants to put more money toward removing lead pipes after The Light revealed issues with the city’s replacement program. But he said Mayor Jon Mitchell would have to make a decision first, and the mayor has not directly responded to requests for comment.
The Light reported on Wednesday that more than 3,000 New Bedford homes still have a lead service line, and the city has been slow to remove them in recent years. When residents request a service line replacement, they are responsible for the entire cost, which can add up to thousands of dollars.
“If we can’t have a safe, healthy, well-functioning group of residents, then we are greatly failing our community for which we are elected to serve,” Abreu said.
Mayor Mitchell did not provide a statement, despite multiple requests. Instead, a city spokesperson emailed The Light saying that Wednesday’s story “mischaracterizes the city’s approach.” The spokesperson did not point to any inaccuracies in the story, but requested that The Light publish the following statement from Department of Public Infrastructure Commissioner Jamie Ponte:
“Overall, we aim to maximize the total number of annual lead service remediations by efficiently using the available funding. Many factors are considered when developing a removal project. Other planned infrastructure work, i.e.. other utility projects, sewer work, water main work, paving, etc. To ensure the efficiency of resources we often try to capitalize on existing utility projects by expanding their scopes to include these lead service replacements.”
The city rejected multiple requests for an interview with Ponte before Wednesday’s story was published.
A limited amount of funding for lead pipe replacement from the federal infrastructure bill has been available to Massachusetts cities since July. But as of late October, the city had not applied for it yet.
“I was hoping that some of this federal infrastructure money that was passed by the House and Senate and signed by the president last year would have been applied to some of these initiatives,” Council President Abreu said.
The city has also received more than $64 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, some of which could be spent on removing lead service lines.
“I would be totally supportive of applying further ARPA monies towards lead pipe replacement,” Abreu said. But the council would need the mayor to give the go-ahead first, he added.
Federal funds could be put toward accelerating the city’s service line replacement program, which has replaced fewer and fewer pipes each year since 2018. Last year, the city only removed 21 of them. They don’t expect to finish removing all the pipes for another 10 years.
Abreu also entertained the idea of setting up a fund for low-income residents who request a service line replacement. The city does replace lines for free, but that usually only happens when there’s already work being done on infrastructure in the area, like repairing a broken water main.
Residents who ask for their service line to be replaced have to pay for it. Half of the cost is due upfront, and the rest can be paid in installments. The average service line replacement costs thousands of dollars.
There is no safe amount of lead exposure, according to the EPA. When lead leaches out of pipes into the water supply, it can cause serious health problems, particularly for children. Lead poisoning has been linked to slower development and issues with learning and behavior.
“Obviously, we need to continue to put forth the full concerted effort to ensure that we abate all underground lead piping in the city of New Bedford,” Abreu said.
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