DENVER — The city of Denver will receive $76 million from the $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure package to help with the removal of lead pipes.
Denver was the first and, to date, only city in the country to be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a variance from the Safe Drinking Water Act to remove these lead pipes from communities.
“It's a 15 year program. We're going as fast as we can, which is about 5,000 lines a year," said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water. "This infrastructure money will allow us to accelerate that program, but it's still going to take us another 12 years or so to get every lead service line out of our system."
Lead exposure can lead to serious health impacts, affecting everything from a person's brain to their kidneys.
“Denver Water is a national leader in addressing lead issues and water,” said KC Becker, the Region 8 administrator for the EPA. “It's a huge undertaking. It can be really impactful to homes and to streets. But we've seen that the communities have been really responsive to it.”
In 2020, the city announced its goal of removing between 64,000 and 84,000 lead pipes over the course of 15 years. It’s working to remove around 4,470 lead pipes per year on average.
The process is lengthy and expensive. It requires workers to dig a small hole into streets to first see whether the pipes in the area are made of copper or lead. Then workers excavate the area to dig up and replace the pipe.
Currently, the city is focused on replacing lead service lines that lead into homes.
Normally, the financial burden would be on the homeowner. It costs about $10,000 per pipe replacement. However, the city is paying for much of the estimated $770 million to replace the pipes through a series of grants and loans.
“That cost is absorbed by all of our customers in our service area. So they might see not even a penny increase in their bill over time to fund this program,” said Lochhead.
There is a process of adding chemicals, such as orthophosphate, to water to remove the lead instead of replacing the pipes, but Lochhead says that is not a true solution due cost and environmental impact.
The orthophosphate lines the pipes to prevent lead from leaking in. However, if the pipe is damaged, split or chipped in some way, lead can leak into the water. Beyond that, the chemical has a downstream impact on the South Platte River with buildup.
Lochhead sees total pipe replacement as the only true solution. He’s hoping the money from the infrastructure law can help the city target historically disadvantaged communities, in particular.
“These are the communities that have highly been impacted by social injustice, especially when we look at environmental injustice,” said Sondra Young, president of the Denver NAACP.
She applauds the program and is now working with the city to educate residents on the benefits of replacing their lead pipes. Because the city cannot move forward with the lead pipe replacement process without the homeowner’s approval, Young says having the community education component is key, and she hopes to help build up trust.
“Oftentimes, we've been tricked. We think that they’re for us, and that has not always worked for us or for the good of us. Now we're here to make sure that this is working for the good of our communities,” Young said. “So us going to the door saying, 'You can trust us and let them in,' it's been a big factor.”
The program is still a long way from completion, but city and federal officials hope Denver will serve as a model for the nation for how these pipes can be removed successfully from communities.
“There's no community in America that's replacing its lead pipes at a greater rate of speed than Denver is today,” said Sen. Michael Bennet, D-CO, at a press conference Friday.
Colorado as a whole will receive $688 million from the federal government to improve water infrastructure.