AMSTERDAM & JOHNSTOWN -- The state Department of Health has awarded the cities of Amsterdam and Johnstown each $521,785 grants to help pay for the replacement of lead service lines supplying residential drinking water.
The money is part of $10 million awarded to 18 municipalities in New York state in July. The state also spent $10 million on the lead service line replacement program last year, all of the funding coming from the $2.5 billion Clean Water Infrastructure Act of 2017.
Unlike many lead pipe removal programs, this one pays the entire cost of replacing a lead service line feeding water into a private residence, without cost to the homeowner.
The rules of the Lead Service Line Replacement program allow each municipality to decide which homeowners can tap into the funds. The money can be used to either reimburse private contractors hired by homeowners, with contracts approved by the state, or to reimburse the municipality for costs incurred to its Department of Public Works. Eligible expenses include engineering plans for removal of the pipes, as well as construction costs. The state estimates the cost to replace most residential lines will be $5,000 to $10,000 per lead service line. Each municipality will be responsible for contacting homeowners to confirm the presence of a lead service line, full or partial, and whether or not the homeowner is interested in having it replaced.
According to the Department of Health, the state uses three main criteria to decide which municipalities would get funding: percentage of children with elevated blood lead levels; median household income; and the number of houses built before 1939.
Randy Gardinier, Amsterdam's water treatment plant chief operator, said Amsterdam has been under an administrative order from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency since 2017 to sample lead in water from more homes that have a lead service line connected to the city's main water lines.
Gardinier said in the past Amsterdam had been sampling too much from homes with copper service lines. He said upping the percentage of water tested from lead pipes meant he had to go to the city Assessor's Office and map out homes by the decade in which they were built, starting with 1880 to 1890.
"We sent out hundreds of letters," he said.
Gardinier said his department was able to identify enough water lines, about 75, feeding homes built between 1910 to 1920 to comply with the EPA order.
"Once we had enough we didn't need to keep looking," he said.
Gardinier said the EPA required Amsterdam to test water from 60 such homes, which in September showed that water from nine of the homes had more lead than the 15 parts per billion allowed by federal regulations.
He said Mayor Michael Villa has made replacement of lead lines in the area between Church Street and Clizbe Avenue a priority. Gardinier said he sent out letters to 85 homes and several businesses in that area. If residents want their lines checked the city will do it.
"We're going to replace those lines first," he said. "So far we've only identified two locations along Church Street. We may have some of our people go door to door."
Cherylann Saul, who has been active in lobbying the city to begin the $1.9 million reconstruction project for Church Street, said she received a letter from the city about the lead pipe grant. She said she's concerned many homeowners won't be able to determine if they have lead plumbing.
"A few of us have had our hard pipes checked and some of us, like myself, have copper to the house, but that doesn't mean that there isn't lead pipe connections or like a 'mishmash' under the street," she said. "They're going to have to dig up the street too and then inspect every pipe under the road to do a thorough job as to where all the lead pieces are or piping."
According to the state Department of Health, the easiest way to test if a water service line might contain lead is via a “scratch test.”
"After locating where the water service line enters the building, typically in a basement or near a water meter, identify a test area on the pipe between the point where it enters the building and the inlet valve before the water meter. Using the flat edge of a screwdriver, gently scratch the outside of the pipe. If the scratched area is shiny and silver, it is likely a lead service line, a magnet will not stick to lead pipe," reads a DOH advisory. "If the scratched area is copper in color, like a penny, the service line is copper, a magnet will not stick to copper pipe. If the scratched area remains a dull gray color, and a magnet sticks to the surface, the service line is galvanized steel."
Gardinier said Amsterdam has spent $40,000 to hire M.J. Engineering and its subcontractor Blue Leaf Inc. to study the chemicals the city uses to treat its water to see if a less corrosive option might available. He said the city may switch to using soda ash as part of a corrosion control optimization program aimed at reducing lead in the city's drinking water. He said after the recent grant money is exhausted he will need to identify more lead service lines to maintain the 60 needed to comply with the EPA order.
George DiMarco, a member of Johnstown's independently elected Water Board, said he doesn't know why Johnstown was selected for the state grant.
"We don't have elevated lead levels in our water. Amsterdam did, Gloversville did, we did not," he said.
DiMarco said Johnstown has replaced lead service lines with copper for years whenever they were discovered. He said the Water Board will let residents in the city know that they money is available.
"I'm sure we'll let people know, but a lot of people don't even want to go through this. I'm not sure how this will affect the homeowners," he said.
The Lead Service Line Replacement program gives municipalities two years to spend the grant money.