NEW BEDFORD — The labor shortage and delayed funding are the main reasons why lead pipe replacement slumped last year, the city’s top infrastructure supervisor says.
There are still over 3,000 hazardous lead service lines delivering water to New Bedford homes. The city is working to replace them, but progress has slowed in recent years — less than two dozen lead pipes came out of the ground in 2021.
Department of Public Infrastructure Commissioner Jamie Ponte said that his department is dozens of employees short, and that’s standing in the way of construction.
“When I started working here, we had three crews consistently digging up streets and doing that sort of work,” he said. “And right now we have one, and sometimes we struggle to staff one because of the labor shortage.”
Ponte sat down for an interview for the first time since The Light published two reports last month on the city’s lead pipe replacement program. City spokespeople declined multiple requests for an interview with water officials before the stories were published.
Another factor in the slowdown was the city council’s delay in approving water infrastructure funding last year, Ponte said. A minority group of councilors held the measure back for months over concerns about increased water rates. They missed the state’s initial deadline, then they blew through an extended deadline, and ultimately the state rescinded the funding offer, he said.
“With limited funding to be able to go in and do any of this work, it hindered our progress,” Ponte said. “We were forced to resubmit for the following year and that contributed to the dropping number of lead service lines [being replaced].”
The department is now facing an “unprecedented” number of water projects this year, and a tight timeline to finish them, because of the funding delay.
The city councilors who held back the funding — Linda Morad, Naomi Carney, Brian Gomes and Maria Giesta — did not respond to requests for comment.
Lead pipe replacements have started to bounce back back this year — almost 90 service lines have been replaced so far. That’s more than the last two years combined, but it’s only a fraction of the 891 service lines replaced back in 2018.
Ponte isn’t sure if or when the city will get back to replacing lead service lines at its pre-pandemic pace. There aren’t any applicants for the department’s entry level positions, so he doesn’t see an end to the labor shortage in the near future. But he says the city should finish the service line replacements within 10 years, adding that his estimate is a conservative one.
Property owners with a lead service line can wait until the city’s program reaches their street, and at that point workers will replace it for free. But it’s the city’s policy that anyone who requests an immediate service line placement will have to pay the entire cost. Half of it is due upfront, and the rest can be paid in installments. In New Bedford, a service line replacement can range from $4,000 to $10,000, depending on the property.
Ponte said he wouldn’t be opposed to setting up a fund for low income homeowners who want their service line replaced, if the city allocated money for it. And he said he would welcome more funding to put towards eliminating lead plumbing.
“We’d find it helpful, absolutely,” Ponte said. “[Lead pipe replacement] has been one of the top priorities of the city. We won’t stop removing them until they’re all gone.”
City Council President Ian Abreu had supported the idea of using federal stimulus money from the American Rescue Plan Act, but Ponte wasn’t sure those funds would be helpful because of the regulations around how cities can use them.
“I think it might overcomplicate it,” he said. “But I’m always willing to explore opportunities to get more of this done.”
The city mainly pays for lead service line removals with partially forgivable loans from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. It’s also in the process of applying for money from the state’s Clean Water Trust, which has been available since July, but those funds are only for planning, not construction. That means the money could be put towards listing the locations of lead pipes, but not removing them.
The department is working to make sure that the funding would be put to good use, since it already has a database with about 90% of the city’s service lines — an advantage few other cities have. Ponte said one possible project could be improving the quality of that database.
“New Bedford is lightyears ahead of many other communities in where we are with lead services,” he said. “Part of the reason why we haven’t applied for it yet is because we’re already there.”
Ponte expects his department to finish that application by February.
Do I have lead pipes?
The Light has compiled a searchable list of properties identified as having a lead service line in the city’s data.