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In Bennington, lead water line removal acts as pilot for communities across Vermont

A photo of a person in a hard hat in a hole in the ground holding a narrow pipe.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
A worker installs a new copper water line at a home in Bennington. The town is replacing lead water lines at about 1,500 properties throughout town.

There’s a project underway in Bennington to remove lead water lines from more than 1,500 homes throughout town.

It’s an expensive and time-consuming job, and it requires digging up front lawns, from one house to the next.

The state says it’s likely that there are lead water fixtures in communities across Vermont, and the work in Bennington is being monitored as a pilot project, that will hopefully be replicated in other towns and cities.

"I have a daughter who’s now 17, and when she was 2 years old, she had lead poisoning. So I know it’s a serious thing, so I just know its good to get rid of it.”
Cindi Winter, Bennington resident

On a recent afternoon, Cindi Winter was sitting out on her front porch, smoking a cigarette, and watching a work crew dig up the front lawn of the house she rents on Park Street in Bennington.

The water in Winter’s house has lead in it. And while her landlord had a filter put on the system, she says she was excited to hear that the old lead service lines were being ripped out.

“Right now we use a filter, which is not a problem, but it’d be nice not to have to use a filter," she said.

The crew working in front of Winter’s house was making a mess. There was a deep ditch carved out of the front lawn, and the workers yanked the old water lines out and replaced them with safer copper pipes.

Winter says she has no problem with the dust and noise.

“I have a daughter who’s now 17, and when she was 2 years old she had lead poisoning,” Winters said. “So I know it’s a serious thing, so I just know its good to get rid of it.”

A photo showing a coil of metal piping
Howard Weiss-Tisman
An old lead water line that was removed sits outside a home in Bennington.

Lead is a toxic metal. It’s been linked to a number of neurological health disorders, and there’s no safe level to have in the blood. It’s especially dangerous for young kids to ingest.

Any public water system that was built in the early 1900s, and that includes most of Vermont, probably has lead pipes and fixtures leading from the main water system into the homes.

More from VPR: Vermont Plans To Test Schools For Lead By June 2022, But Some Want State To Act Faster

Larry Gates has been with the Bennington Public Works Department for almost 20 years.

He says any time there’s a water main break, or the town puts in a new sidewalk, it exposes the lead water lines below the surface.

“We’ve been actively changing the lead out, on our side, as we rehab streets, we’ll change out the lead lines,” said Gates. “So we knew there was a lot of lead already in town, just from where we’ve dug in and had seen lead, and the homeowners side was still lead. So we’ve been nipping away at these one at a time, you know, on our side from the main to the curb stop for years.”

The biggest challenge to taking on a project like this is being able to identify where the lead water lines are.

In many Vermont communities, the systems were put in 100 years ago, and most towns don’t have records of what was used back then.

A photo of a page with handwritten notes on it
Howard Weiss-Tisman
A member of the Bennigton Public Works Department found a set of old books that recorded where the lead water lines were buried in town. The notes go back to the late 1800s, and helped the town figure out where the lines were buried.

Bennington lucked out a few years ago when town employees stumbled upon a stack of old record books that had detailed information on where the water lines were, and what they were made out of.

Liam McRae is with MSK engineers, the company that designed the project here in Bennington. He says after the lead water crisis in Flint, Michigan, federal money became available.

And because Bennington had the information on its lead water lines, it was first in line to tackle the problem.

“Lead service line replacement is a bear,” McRae said. “You’re basically rebuilding a massive amount of infrastructure throughout town. So it wasn’t until we started getting all of these grants that we could really go for the whole system, and start providing these identifications and replacements at no cost to homeowners, which is really the way it should be.”

The state is using $11 million in federal funding to pay for the work in Bennington, which is expected to take another four or five years to complete.

President Biden has another $45 billion in his infrastructure bill, which is specifically earmarked for replacing lead water lines across the country.

“Lead service line replacement is a bear. You’re basically rebuilding a massive amount of infrastructure throughout town."
Liam McRae, MSK Engineering

And so Eric Montross, who manages the state’s public drinking water program, says towns and cities should begin to think about getting a clearer picture of where their lead service lines are.

While Bennington was ahead of the curve, he says he’s not sure how much other towns and cities know about where their lead service lines are.

“There’s a clear number one at Bennington, and I think the number two is less clear for us,” Montross said.

Montross says that while most of Vermont’s public water systems probably had lead lines at first, changes have been made over time, and it’s impossible to know where the lead lines are without doing more research.

“It’s going to be going into basements and looking at what’s coming through the wall in the residence,” he said. “It’s taking water quality samples, talking to homeowners, talking to local plumbers, talking to local contractors. It’s any way they can possibly gather that information. It’s not a single way to do it.”

The work has been moving along pretty well in Bennington, and Montross says the state will be reaching out to other towns to begin figuring out where the buried lead water lines are.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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