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Denver plan to replace lead pipes instead of chemical remedy gets EPA OK

Denver Water is the only utility in the nation to receive a variance from the EPA under the Safe Drinking Water Act for lead reduction.

DENVER (CN) — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday gave its approval for Denver to continue its lead pipe replacement program in lieu of the orthophosphate treatment required by federal law to address actionable levels of lead in drinking water.

In 2012, Denver Water — which serves 1.5 million people in the Denver metro area — recorded lead levels among some customers served by lead pipes above the EPA action level, prompting the utility to implement a lead reduction plan. The Safe Drinking Water Act required Denver to lower lead levels by implementing anticorrosive orthophosphate treatment.

Although a safe and effective method of corrosion control, nutrient loads from orthophosphate treatment can encourage the growth of algae, affecting local reservoir and stream water quality. In light of environmental concerns, Denver Water and stakeholders opted to replace lead service lines throughout the city, an alternate plan that required an EPA variance.

The EPA granted Denver Water an initial three-year variance in 2019 to pursue pipe replacement over orthophosphate treatment. After finding Denver Water’s program to be more effective than orthophosphate treatment, the EPA approved a second variance which will remain in effect for 12 years.

Denver Water is the only utility in the nation to receive variances from the EPA for an alternate plan to reduce lead levels in drinking water under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

“The water we deliver to our customers is lead-free, but lead from customer-owned service lines can enter the water supply to homes,” Jim Lochhead, Denver Water’s CEO and manager, said in a statement. “Removing these lines is the most effective way to eliminate this source of lead exposure, and we are committed to this program until every lead service line has been removed.”

In addition to replacing lead service lines, Denver Water is using pH and alkalinity to control corrosion and providing affected customers with pitchers that can remove lead from water.

Denver Water estimated it will take 15 years to replace between 64,000 and 84,000 lead service lines throughout the city. To date, the utility has replaced approximately 15,000 pipes.

“We've been tracking the Denver program closely,” said Tom Neltner, the Environmental Defense Fund’s senior director for safer chemicals. “We went out there and did a site visit to see just how it was working in the field and how they're making decisions and came away very impressed. It's clearly a model comprehensive program.”

Neltner co-wrote a public comment in support of the EPA variance for Denver Water. He commended the utility’s community engagement and public health communication.  

“We shouldn't be drinking water through what amounts to a lead straw,” Neltner said.

The EPA estimates the U.S. has 6 to 10 million lead service lines in use. The 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure law allocated $15 billion to replace lead pipes nationwide. Denver Water will receive $76 million from Congress to continue replacing lead service lines.

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