BENTON HARBOR — Plans are underway to replace at least some of the lead water service lines in Benton Harbor.
Jason Marquardt, senior project engineer with Abonmarche, said the city received bids on Sept. 8 to replace almost 100 lead service lines by the end of May 2022. Abonmarche operates as the city’s engineering company.
“We’re in the process of awarding the contract to the contractor and we’re getting ready to start that program late October into November,” he said.
The houses slated to have their lead service lines at least partially replaced can be found on the city’s website at www.bhcity.us/water.
This is the first round of homes to have their lead service lines replaced, using a $5.5 million grant the city received from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in October 2020. He said the estimated cost of this first batch of homes, which are scattered all over the city, is $563,000.
The EPA grant is expected to help the city replace about 888 lead service lines over the next four years.
The problem, Marquardt said, is that the city’s water distribution system is more than 100 years old, with many homes built before the 1960s.
The water leaving the city’s water plant doesn’t have lead in it, he said. Neither do the pipes delivering the water to the property lines of the homes.
However, many of the water service lines from the property line to the home are made of lead or have lead components in them, he said.
Traditionally, homeowners were responsible for the water lines starting at their property line. But changes in state law now require municipalities to replace lead service lines at no cost to the homeowner to the first shut-off valve inside the home or 18 inches inside the home, whichever is shortest.
Meanwhile, Marquardt said the city is using $140,000 from a state grant to “pothole” the connection the city has with 350 homes to find out if they need to be replaced.
“That has the contractor physically digging up the shut off and verifying the materials on both the public side and the private side,” he said.
He said the work started in 2019 and will continue until all of the 3,030 active water accounts in the city have been checked and replaced if needed.
Until recently, Marquardt said the city has been hampered by a lack of funding to replace the lead service lines.
But more help is on its way.
In September, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the state’s 2022 fiscal budget, which includes $10 million to replace lead service lines in the city. And the city is expected to receive another $10 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act.
“There’s likely another bid package that’s going to have between 250 to 300 service replacement, probably out by the end of the year for a contractor to start replacing more in 2022,” Marquardt said.
State law allows municipalities to replace the lead service lines over 20 years, but calls to replace them faster have been becoming stronger, especially since a group of 20 organizations filed a petition with the EPA in September, saying that residents need clean drinking water now.
On Wednesday, state health officials urged Benton Harbor residents to use bottled water for cooking and drinking in a joint news release with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.
Benton Harbor has been under a state advisory for lead since October 2018, when routine summer sampling found higher-than-acceptable levels of lead in some of the city’s tap water.
Since then, the city has been required to test a sampling of homes every six months.