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The city of Auburn was recently awarded a grant from the state health department to fund the replacement of lead water fixtures in the city's water lines. 

Director of Municipal Utilities Seth Jensen said the city was notified it had received the $689,134 grant on Dec. 11. The money comes from the state's $20 million Lead Service Line Replacement Program initiative

According to Jensen and Sewer and Water Supervisor Tom Gabak, the money will not be used to replace entire lengths of pipe, as most city water pipes are made of copper. Rather, the funds will help the city replace small portions of lead pipe that connect individual residences to the city's water main with copper pipes. 

Gabak estimates that about half of these connecting pipes, or about 4,500, are made of lead. The city did not start using copper pipes until 1931. Gabak said the grant will not cover the cost of replacing all the lead fixtures, but will give the city "an extra boost" to routine maintenance. He said the city replaces about 50 lead fixtures a year. 

The city is still developing a work plan for the project and not many details are known about when work will start or which homes will be impacted. However, Jensen said this project will coincide with two other city projects: The annual road paving program and the city's water distribution system map modernization project

The grant term begins on March 1 and the city has two years to complete the repairs. Jensen speculated the first year will be "mostly fact gathering" and some work in areas that are already being worked on through the road program "so we're digging up and doing disturbances on streets that are already being serviced." He said the "vast majority" of the work will be done next year.  

Jensen and Gabak both said the public should not be concerned about any health risks associated with the older lead pipes because the portion of pipe that is made of lead is very small. Jensen said the city tests for lead levels in the water and according to the city's 2016 Water Quality Report, lead levels in the city's drinking water did not exceed the state health department's maximum limits.      

"We're replacing lines from the early 1900s," Gabak said. "To my knowledge, nobody has ever gotten sick."

Gabak said the water does not sit in the lead portion of the pipes for very long, but if people are concerned about their drinking water, they should let their tap run for a few minutes to flush out any contamination. Residents can have their water tested by contacting the city's water filtration plant at (315) 253-8754. 

"This is something the state is doing to be ahead of the curve so we don't have a (situation like) Flint, Michigan," Gabak said.

In addition to health benefits, this program will also financially benefit some homeowners.

According to the city charter, the property owner owns the water line from the city's water main all the way to the water meter at the residence. Gabak said anytime work needs to be done to that portion of the water system, it comes at the homeowner's expense and can cost between $1,500 and $2,000.  

"As we do upgrade our services, that does come at a cost to the homeowner so this program is nice because there will be no cost to the homeowner for this work," Jensen said.

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Staff writer Natalie Brophy can be reached at (315)282-2239 or natalie.brophy@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @brophy_natalie. 

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