Workers repair a pipe below Schoenbar Road in 2019. (Photo: City of Ketchikan)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in November proposed one of the largest changes to lead pipe regulations in three decades. The strict overhaul set forth by the Biden administration requires every community to test their service lines and submit the results by April.

Studies in recent years have linked lead in drinking water to lower IQ scores in children and higher risk of heart disease in adults. More often than not, that lead comes from old municipal pipes. The Lead and Copper Rule Revisions, otherwise known as the LCRRs, are a nationwide attempt to better protect communities from that exposure.

“Alaska’s infrastructure is so much newer, we don’t have as many lead service connections here in Alaska as other more established longterm, down-south infrastructure,” said Randy Bates, the director of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation Water Division.

But every community in the state is required to test their service lines just the same. The comprehensive results must be submitted to the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation by April 24.

John Kleinegger is the Water Division Manager at Ketchikan Public Utilities. He says that getting it done in time will be a struggle for them and other water utilities across the state.

“We’re gonna be busy. We’re working with an engineering consulting firm to help us put all the pieces together because yeah, to even have a draft report prepared by April 24, that’s not much time,” said Kleinegger.

And it’s not just public service lines. It’s the pipes on private properties too. To pull this off in Ketchikan, Kleinegger began sending utility employees door to door, starting with the oldest structures in town. First on the list was the Pioneer Hall, built in 1900. 

“Then working into the 1910s and 1920s, and possibly into the ’30s and beyond but I don’t think we’re going to see anything other than some galvanized service lines, which, you know, might have been installed in the ’40s during World War Two,” said the utility manager.

Kleinegger added that you don’t need to wait for a knock at the door to find out if you have a lead service line in your house though. You can do it yourself, though you may get a little dusty. He tells customers to first locate the incoming line, usually in the crawlspace or underneath the house. 

“If you scratch it with a screwdriver or something like that – if it’s lead, you’ll see a shiny dark gray surface, whereas the rest of the lead service line is a dull gray,” he instructed. Lead is soft, as far as metals go. If a pipe is galvanized steel, scratching it with a screwdriver won’t do much. According to Kleinegger, if it’s lead, you’ll know. Or you can always send a picture to your local water utility to make sure. 

Kleinegger said that as each Alaskan community rushes towards the April deadline, the money and man hours will add up – especially if infrastructure upgrades are needed. 

But Carrie Bohan with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation said there is federal money to help. Bohan stated that the state has funding through the EPA to provide loans as well as small grants. 

“If they do determine that they have been service lines that need to be replaced, there’s still four more years worth of those grant dollars – that are substantial – available for us to apply for,” Bohan said.

The pot of funds is roughly $28 million over five years.

After a draft review and comment period of Alaska’s test results, the final inventory is due to the EPA by October 16.