During 10 years, Regional Water St. Paul intends replace every lead pipe serving private property in St. Paulefree to homeowners.
To achieve that, the utility is increasing its workforce by at least 10 percent, including 30 new hires starting Monday.
The effort to replace lead service lines that extend from home water meters began last year with removing 350 initial lines. Another 850 could be replaced this year, following the hiring of 30 new staff and more trainees.
As difficult as it will be to maintain funding and recruit workers, one of the most difficult aspects of the program has been getting permission from property owners.
“Some people don’t understand why we’re reaching out,” said Racquel Vaske, assistant general manager of St. Paul Regional Water.
Lead exposure has been shown to seriously harm children’s development, causing lower IQ, poor school performance and attention problems, according to the study. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Line replacement is free under the program, but usually costs at least $6,000.
Interested homeowners are asked to update their contact information and fill out a “letter of intent” form linked to an online leaded property map at tinyurl.com/LeadReplace2023. I can also call the main service team at 651-266-6820.
Service lines extend from the public water main to the center of the road and, starting just below the curb, meander through private property to connect to a home water meter. St. Paul Regional Water — which also serves some suburban communities — believes there are 26,000 lead pipes among the 95,000 service lines in its system, and most of them are in St. Paul.
To select priority project areas, the utility focuses half of its work on streets that were already scheduled to be open for road reconstruction or utility replacement by the city, county, Xcel Energy or another agency. In this way, the same street does not have to be opened twice.
“It minimizes disruption to owners and the public,” said Patrick Shea, general manager of St. Paul Regional Water. “We don’t want to be on a street that was just rebuilt two years ago.”
The other half of the line replacements will take place in historically disadvantaged communities and low-income areas with a high concentration of children under the age of 5, particularly in preschools.
That said, if the water utility receives enough letters of interest from a particular street and a federal grant becomes available, the utility could prioritize that area, Shea said.
Given the number of factors involved, from funding to road construction programs, it is difficult to predict when lead replacement will be available for a given area.
“We don’t have a set block-by-block program,” Shea admitted. “There are too many variables. It leads to a lot of misunderstandings if something doesn’t happen.”
Personnel and mobilization
To promote the lead pipe replacement program, the company has hired two lead coordinators to work with customers, with more to come.
A coordinator is fluent in ethnic Karen, the language spoken by a refugee population from Burma that has settled in sizeable numbers around Maplewood, Roseville and St. Paul’s North End. Another new hire is fluent in Spanish, and informational materials have already been translated into several languages.
Some of the 30 new hires in a variety of jobs will need to obtain training and certifications before they are ready to enter the field.
Vaske has spent at least the past nine months developing the recruitment and training program, with a focus on residents who live in St. Paul, which historically has not yielded many candidates. To change that, the utility has replaced its low-wage temporary summer jobs with 10 interns who will be eligible to join the Laborers International Union of North America after a year.
“We really encourage people to try,” Vaske said. “We don’t expect people to have those skills on day one.”
Trainee posts attracted 110 applicants, including 75 from the local service area. If enough people continue to take entry-level jobs every year, the utility could have an answer to the labor shortage that has plagued industries in general.
“We hope this intern position is a forever thing,” Vaske said. “In theory, we will hire 10 interns now and in the future every summer.”
St. Paul Regional Water is funding much of the project with part of the city’s share of America’s Rescue Plan dollars, meaning they can replace the lines within the city for now. They also received small grants from the Minnesota Department of Health and are looking for more money.
The federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will lead $215 million for Minnesota over five years to replace lead pipes, and the water company is asking the state for $15 million of that to cover the costs of the program over the next year alone.
Gov. Tim Walz on Thursday proposed spending an additional $250 million from the state budget surplus to replace lead pipes statewide.
St. Paul Regional Water offers free water testing kits at 1900 Rice St. For more information, as well as tips on how to avoid lead in drinking water, visit tinyurl.com/LeadReplace2023 or call customer service at 651-266-6350.