EAST CHICAGO — The East Chicago Water Board on Monday approved a $3.1 million plan to replace lead and galvanized steel water service lines in the USS Lead Superfund site and immediately access about $1.4 million to fund the project.
The city plans to replace the water lines after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has completed Superfund work by removing lead- and arsenic-contaminated soil from around homes or determined no remediation is required, City Engineer William Allen said.
Lines, including customer-owned portions, would be replaced from the city water main to the home's water meter or nearest line inside the home, depending on circumstances at individual homes, Allen said.
Allen told the board he has been in communication with EPA, which identified more than 200 homes in zones 2 and 3 of the Superfund site where it already has removed soil or where no soil removal is required. EPA has said it plans to remove soil at 192 additional homes in the two zones this construction season.
The city plans to run new copper lines using a method called directional boring, which does not require contractors to dig a trench, Allen said.
The city also plans to test drinking water at homes before and after line replacement, he said. The city will be using a three-draw sampling method, which is more robust than the 1-liter first-draw method required under the EPA's Lead and Copper Rule but not as extensive as the sequential testing method EPA was using last year when it found elevated lead levels at 18 homes in the Superfund site.
The Water Board planned to open bids for the line-replacement project at a May 25 meeting.
East Chicago last fall included a plan to replace up to 500 customer-owned lead water lines in a preliminary engineering report submitted to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission as part of its petition to increase its water rates by 55 percent. Water customers would have had to pay 50 percent of the replacement costs under the initial plan.
In early December, Mayor Anthony Copeland announced EPA had found elevated lead levels of 15 parts per billion or more at 18 homes in the Superfund site. A total of 43 homes were tested as part of a pilot study intended to determine if excavation of soil could cause lead in lines to become dislodged and enter drinking water, EPA said.
Lead in soil and lead in water are not related, but residents exposed to both face greater health risks. From spring 2015 to September 2016, the city — with IDEM"S approval — used a chemical intended to prevent leaching of lead from service lines but is not recommended by experts because it can increase lead releases, records show.
EPA and city officials have said some estimates are that up to 90 percent of the city's water lines contain lead. If that's correct, all customers should be using certified water filters as a precaution, EPA said. The city is in compliance with EPA's Lead and Copper Rule.
After the EPA sampling results were announced in December, the city and the Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor, which represents ratepayer interests, reached a settlement in the water rate case in which the city agreed to remove the lead-line replacement project from its infrastructure improvement plan. Instead, the city secured $3.1 million from the Indiana Finance Authority to replace up to 500 lines at 100 percent of the cost and now plans to borrow about $14 million to fund other infrastructure improvements, state records show.
The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission on April 26 approved the settlement between the city and the OUCC, and the rate increase went into effect May 5. Customers likely will see the new rates billed in June, said Patricia Bodnar, manager of the East Chicago Water Department. Under the increase, a monthly water bill for a residential customer using 5,000 gallons would rise from $12.05 to $18.66.
After the East Chicago City Council approves the larger $14 million financing deal with the Indiana Finance Authority later this year, the city will be able to access the remainder of the $3.1 million for the line replacement project, said Joseph Allegretti, the city's corporation counsel.
The city plans to use $14 million in bond money to build additional water storage tanks, replace and upgrade meters, repair and replace hydrants and demolish its old water filtration plant. The city's newer, $52 million filtration plant failed after startup in 2011, but as of January was processing most of the city's drinking water, records show.
East Chicago and IDEM officials said they are continuing to test drinking water and working to optimize dosage of chemicals used to prevent release of lead from service lines.