After six-plus years of identifying lead pipes that deliver water to the taps of Fort Worth residents, city officials say they’ve completed the process of replacing publicly owned lead service lines. 

But Fort Worth’s plans to finish the job will be delayed after the Environmental Protection Agency denied the city’s application for $10 million in grant funding, according to Chris Harder, the water department director. 

Harder isn’t sure why the federal agency denied the grant and looks forward to finding out during an exit interview before the year’s end.

“We’re not necessarily married to this EPA grant,” he said. “We will look for any type of money that may be available that would minimize any type of a ratepayer contribution because the way I look at it, they’re already paying for it through their taxes.” 

Fort Worth’s diagram of the water service pipe shows where public lines end and private property begins. (Courtesy image)

This summer, Fort Worth finished replacing 1,846 lead service lines, or the pipes that run from the water main to a residence’s internal plumbing. City staff have also completed a federally mandated inventory of Fort Worth’s 270,000-plus water meters two years ahead of the EPA’s deadline in 2024.

The EPA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that there is no known safe level of lead in a child’s blood and that even low levels of lead in kids can result in lower IQ, hyperactivity, behavior problems, slowed growth, hearing issues and anemia. 

Following the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the EPA began crafting new lead and copper standards for drinking water. Fort Worth wanted to be ahead of the game and shaped a response plan of its own beginning in 2016, said Stacy Walters, Fort Worth’s regulatory environmental administrator. 

“We feel like we’ve been out front on this, and because we’re out front on this, we should be at the front of the line for the money, right?” Harder said. 

Many cities are just now starting to build their inventories of lead pipes in their water systems, much less beginning replacement, Walters added. The EPA’s overhaul of lead and copper rules was first proposed in 2019, with the most recent update coming in August.

“We have actively positioned ourselves to understand what was going on in our system,” she said. “We knew the mandates were coming, and we didn’t want to be caught flat-footed. We started trying to understand what that will mean to our system, and how do we prepare to be able to meet that mandate?” 

Fort Worth’s inventory revealed 10 lead service lines on the private property side of the water distribution system, which residents are typically responsible for repairing themselves, Walters said. 

Most crucially, Fort Worth also identified about 1,200 galvanized steel or iron pipes located downstream of a lead pipe. Over time, lead particles can attach to the surface of galvanized pipes and enter drinking water, resulting in elevated lead levels, according to the EPA. 

Galvanized pipes, typically installed in homes built before 1960, are located underneath a private property, which means property owners are typically responsible for repairs or replacement. 

City officials recently applied for a $10 million grant to cover 100% of the costs to replace the private service lines and galvanized pipes without any impact on water rates for customers, Harder said. Most of the homes affected are located in economically disadvantaged communities, as defined by the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening tool, Walters said. 

How have residents been notified of lead replacement?

All customers with lead service lines were offered free lead testing. If their water exceeded testing requirements, the city offered water pitchers and replacement filters. City staff also held public meetings ahead of major repairs to educate community members about the project. – Stacy Walters, Fort Worth’s regulatory environmental administrator

Harder suspects that the grant denial may have been because of the large amount requested. The city will explore the option of applying for smaller portions of funding – say, $2 million each year – as water department staff work to replace the galvanized pipes. 

“The thing that’s frustrating to us is that there has been a lot of press releases and public information out there about all the federal money that’s available for lead service replacement,” he said. “One of the mechanisms is through the state revolving funds, and they haven’t even established that yet, in terms of distributing funds at least in Texas, for lead service replacements.” 

Through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, the EPA has provided $20 billion in loans to lead pipe replacement projects across the U.S. 

But the state-run program mostly benefits small water systems and disadvantaged communities, according to Texas Water Development Board materials. Fort Worth is home to several economically disadvantaged pockets, but overall the city is not considered disadvantaged, Harder said. 

If the department received the EPA grant this fall, work on galvanized pipes would have begun next year, Harder said. Losing out on the money will delay the city’s plans to move forward on eliminating lead contamination, but the department is determined to find grant funding to support the work. 

“They keep telling us the money is out there,” Walters said. “We’re going to keep looking.”

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter.

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Haley Samsel

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She previously covered the environment for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She grew up in Plano and graduated from American University,...