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Montana water systems will identify lead service lines for federal rule

Water Faucet
Posted at 6:47 PM, Apr 22, 2024

HELENA — For the last few years, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality has been working with schools to help them identify and respond to sources of lead in their drinking water. Now they're helping take on a far wider inventory of lead in water systems.

“This is a much bigger undertaking,” said Greg Montgomery, DEQ’s Lead and Copper Rule coordinator.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has updated its Lead and Copper Rule, which requires water systems across the country to take steps to control these metals in drinking water. As part of that, they are giving systems until October to make an inventory of lead service lines – the pipes that run between water mains and the customer.

The EPA says there is no safe level of lead exposure. Even low levels of lead in drinking water have been linked to health impacts, especially for children.

“Service line inventories are the foundation from which water systems can take action to address LSLs,” the EPA said in a fact sheet for water systems. “Establishing an inventory of service line materials and identifying the location of LSLs are key steps in getting them replaced.”

MTN asked Montgomery how common lead service lines are in Montana.

“I don't think we know yet,” he replied.

“Obviously, some parts of the country have higher numbers than other places, but in Montana, we really didn't know,” he added. “We know some communities have them, but not a good number.”

Water systems will have to identify lead pipes and galvanized pipes that have ever been downstream from a lead pipe. The rule applies to community systems – including cities, towns and subdivisions – as well as to buildings like schools, factories, offices and hospitals that have their own systems. Montgomery said 1,065 individual systems across Montana will be doing the inventory.

So far, 77 of them have already completed their work. They include the city of East Helena – where leaders say the work was easier because they had records of what their service lines were made of from the late 1990s, when they installed new water meters across the city.

Other water systems may need to work directly with customers to get a closer look at their service lines. In Helena, public works leaders say they have data on record for most of their customers. Once a consultant finishes analyzing that information, they’ll start reaching out to the ones they don’t have data for – estimated to be less than 600 lines – so they can test and identify their composition.

Montgomery says DEQ has put together Montana-specific guidance to help water systems doing their inventory. The Montana Department of Commerce is also giving public water systems a chance to apply for technical assistance.

“If a system applies for that, then Commerce can assign them a contractor to assist them in doing their inventory, at no cost to them,” said Montgomery.

Water systems have until Oct. 16 to get their inventories done.

“This is just the initial inventory, so it's okay – if they can't determine what that line is, they can certainly mark it as ‘unknown,’ as long as they have a plan in place to determine what that line material is in the future,” Montgomery said.