State to invest $240 million in replacing lead pipes

In April, Gov. Walz visited the site of ongoing lead-pipe replacement work in St. Paul, accompanied (L to R) by Rep. Sydney Jordan, SPRWS Director Patrick Shea and Council Member Chris Tolbert.

Minnesota will make a $240 million, jobs-creating investment in mapping and removing lead water pipes across the state, thanks to legislation Gov. Tim Walz signed into law this week.

Currently, about 100,000 water service lines in the state leach lead into the drinking water they carry, according to an estimate from the state Department of Health. Lead exposure can damage vital organs and slow childhood development.

Walz touted the legislation during an April 20 event in St. Paul’s North End neighborhood, held on a residential street where a union crew from St. Paul Regional Water Services was working on the capital city’s ongoing $14.5 million initiative to remove and replace lead pipes.

The governor said St. Paul’s program, which taps into funding from the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, was “visionary” in demonstrating what the state might accomplish with a portion of its $17.5 billion budget surplus.

“No matter where you live, we’re making investments that will improve your quality of life,” he said. “Our proposal will fund local projects to identify and replace lead pipes across the state at no cost to families and homeowners. Minnesotans deserve to know where their water comes from and that it is safe and healthy.”

Several construction unions, including the Laborers (LIUNA), banded together with environmental groups and local governments to lobby in support of the statewide legislation, authored by Rep. Sydney Jordan (D-Minneapolis) and Sen. Jennifer McEwan (D-Duluth).

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan greeted a crew of Laborers working to replace lead pipes in St. Paul.

The measure drew bipartisan support, passing 64-2 in the Senate and unanimously in the House.

While health risks associated with lead pipes have been known for decades, a statewide approach to identifying and replacing them in residences has long eluded Minnesota lawmakers.

The mechanism they traditionally use to fund major infrastructure projects – bonding – was a non-starter, as the state constitution prohibits bonding funds from improving privately owned property. Water service lines extend from the public right of way to the private residence.

“You can’t replace half a pipe,” Rep. Jordan quipped at the April 20 event.

Joel Smith, president of LIUNA Minnesota and North Dakota, said the coalition of supporting organizations “worked tirelessly for years” to get lead-pipe removal on state lawmakers’ agenda. The historic budget surplus, bolstered by one-time federal relief funding, created a golden opportunity for action.

“LIUNA members will be put to work to combat the serious and statewide health threat posed by lead water lines, and get the lead out,” Smith said. “The tradespeople who do this work are excited to contribute to protecting the water and health of our communities, lakes and rivers.”

In Ramsey County, SPRWS has ramped up hiring to meet the demand for its lead-pipe replacement initiative, partnering with LIUNA Local 363 on a fast-track career training program tailored for entry-level jobseekers.

“For the folks doing this, it’s really great work,” Walz said. “I really believe we are at the beginning of a great renaissance of infrastructure investments in America.”

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