CLAREMONT — The City of Claremont finds itself well ahead of schedule regarding a new federal policy to replace lead-based home water lines, thanks to a running collaborative initiative and good historical records.

Claremont Public Works Director Alex Gleeson met with the Claremont City Council on Wednesday to discuss a needed ordinance change to the city’s water line ownership, due to a policy change this year by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

New rules under the federal Clean Water Safety Act will require all New Hampshire municipalities to develop a plan by 2024 for the replacement of lead-based water service lines up to the customer’s meter.

Private property owners are typically responsible for maintaining the service lines that connect from the city’s system to their meter. But for the removal of lead pipes, the new policy shifts that obligation to the municipality as a condition to the funding it receives toward pipe replacement.

This rule change means the city needs to determine some funding and contractual mechanisms to support city work on private property, Gleeson told the council.

“The sticky situation we are running into is how do we pay for that?” Gleeson said. “We haven’t been in the business of replacing service lines for the homeowner and now we’re going to be getting into the business of replacing those service lines.”

The cost to replace home-owner lines can vary immensely, depending on the amount of line needed for replacement and existing obstacles, such as lines that run underneath a garage, stone wall or patio, according to Gleeson.

An “ideal” project, according to Gleeson, is a straight and short path from the city connection to the meter, in which case a new line can be pulled through the existing path. Even in a best-case scenario, the project requires work teams both inside and outside the house, a licensed plumber, a dump truck and backhoe and involve a few hours to complete.

“But that’s not every scenario with every house in town,” Gleeson said. “And going underneath those slate patios and garages is what we’re dealing with right now.”

The cost per home could range approximately from $2,000 to $12,000, Gleeson said.

Fortunately, Claremont is considerably ahead of most New Hampshire communities with these projects, thanks greatly to the ongoing work of the city’s Lead-Action Team, collaborative of city and county leaders and community partners.

As part of the community’s plan to eradicate the danger of lead contamination, the city began work in 2016 to start removing lead-based customer service lines. Using historical records collected several decades ago by Charles Easter, a former Claremont Public Works director, the city identified 147 homes in Claremont with lead-based service pipes.

“Yes we still have lead in the system but we are the poster child of municipalities in New Hampshire for all of the work we are doing,” Gleeson said.

The city has replaced the pipes on many properties already but still has approximately 48 homes remaining, according to Gleeson.

The city could still charge the project cost to the homeowner’s water bill, but the council could also consider using an awarded grant of $500,000 to shoulder much or potentially all of the cost.

Several councilors mentioned they would like to use the grant money to cover most of the cost burden for the homeowner. Some councilors suggested the customer assume a percentage of the cost, perhaps around 20% to 25%, though a formal discussion has not begun.

Councilors also realized this may seem unfair to the homeowners who assumed the full cost already.

“To me, I feel bad for the people who have already done this but federal rules change,” said Councilor Nick Koloski.

The city ordinance change, in addition to setting a funding mechanism, will also detail the city’s response should a customer deny permission to replace the lines.

According to City Manager Ed Morris, a refusal to allow pipe replacement would have to become a legal matter.

“If we came to that point we would have to get Legal involved to document it properly,” Morris said. “We can’t force ourselves into someone’s basement to do that. The one thing the city could make a decision on, and legal would have to get involved, is not open their line back up. So they would not have water.”

That would be a difficult scenario as the lack of water becomes a different public health issue, Morris said. However, the new federal rule does not permit a municipality to ignore a situation where lead water pipes remain, which would put the city in non-compliance.

In an interview with The Eagle Times, Mayor Charlene Lovett attributes Claremont’s head start on lead-pipe replacement to “a strong partnership and historical data.”

The data collected during Easter’s tenure helped greatly to identify the city’s properties with lead pipes, Lovett said.

The Lead Action Team represents a diverse cross-section of partners, Lovett said. In addition to several city officials, including Lovett, Morris and Gleason, there are representatives from the Claremont School District, the County government, Valley Regional Hospital, the Greater Sullivan County Public Health Network and Southwestern Community Services.

“I would like to see this type of engagement in other parts of the state,” Lovett said. “The cost we are incurring from lead poisoning go far beyond the economic cost. There’s a cost to the individuals, to their families, even a special education cost. And it is fully preventable. We know how to deal with it. But we need to have the will to address it.”

Since its formation the partnership has also focused heavily in increasing lead-testing in infants and children and the safe removal of lead-based paints from homes. In 2020 Sullivan County, in partnership with the Lead Action Team, was awarded a $1.7 million grant through the federally funded Lead Based Paint Hazard Reduction Grant Program to identify and mitigate dangerous lead contamination from low-income homes.

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