House lawmakers advance bill to speed up replacement of lead water lines

The priority bill, which originated in the Senate, would make it easier and more efficient for utilities to switch out pipes.

By: - February 14, 2024 6:30 am

A bill moving through the General Assembly would make it easier for water utilities to replace lead service lines across Indiana. (Getty Images)

A Senate bill that seeks to more quickly replace lead drinking water pipes across Indiana advanced in the opposite chamber on Tuesday with bipartisan support.

Senate Bill 5 — a priority measure for Senate Republicans — would expedite the replacement of thousands of lead service lines, and at a lower cost.

Specifically, the legislation requires landlords to enroll in a program to replace the lead pipes they own through their water utility or be forced to pay for it themselves.

The bill was unanimously approved by the House utilities committee Tuesday and now heads to Ways and Means.

Sen. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, shares the details of his lead service pipe upgrades bill on Jan. 11, 2024. (Whitney Downard/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

“This is a very large problem in scope,” said bill author Sen. Eric Koch, R-Bedford. He noted that the federal government and the Indiana Finance Authority already provide funding to drinking water utilities in the state to help offset the cost of replacing lead pipes to their customers. With regulatory approval, utilities can also pass some costs to ratepayers

But pipe switchouts have so far been slowed by unresponsive property owners — which in many cases are out-of-state landlords — Koch said. 

“What the companies have run into are recalcitrant, or non-responsive, property owners whose non-responsiveness slows the process,” he continued. “And when that process is slowed, and they have to remobilize, it slows things down and raises the cost.”

An off-the-cuff amendment adopted by the committee ensures a water utility attempts to use all other available remedies before completely disconnecting service, however.

Ditching lead water pipes

Lead pipes were banned by the 1986 Safe Drinking Water Act Lead Ban, but an estimated 265,000 lead pipes are still in use in Indiana, according to the U.S. Environemntal Protection Agency (EPA).

In 1991, the EPA established the Lead and Copper Rule to reduce lead and copper in drinking water. 

Last November, the EPA proposed a newer rule to require water systems to replace lead service lines within 10 years. Koch said Tuesday he thinks Indiana “can and should” move faster than the limit imposed by the EPA.

SB 5 creates a program to remove lead service lines at the utility’s expense and no direct cost to homeowners. 

The bill would allow utility companies, upon notice to schedule the service line replacement, to access the property if the owner does not enroll in the program or replace the service lines at their own expense within 45 days. 

Renters are given the right to grant water utilities access to the property, too.

The bill would apply to any utility that has approval from the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission (IURC).

Koch’s legislation would additionally establish a school lead testing and remediation program to make grants available for lead testing in schools.

Lead service pipes transport water from an underground main to a building’s plumbing. Such pipes are more likely to be found in older cities and homes built before 1986. 

(Image from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

The most common sources of lead in drinking water are lead pipes and brass or bronze faucets and fixtures, according to the EPA. The highly poisonous metal can enter drinking water when plumbing materials corrode. 

Water utilities in Indiana are currently in the process of replacing lead service lines.

Indiana American Water, for example, said in a recent press release that more than half of the lead service lines in its service area have already been replaced.

Children exposed to lead can have trouble learning, behavioral issues, hearing impairment and poor kidney function. It can also cause high blood pressure, kidney failure and anemia in adults and seniors.

“Primary prevention is really the only way to combat lead poisoning, by reducing and eliminating sources of lead in the environment,” said Dr. Jeremy Mescher, a pediatrician from Bloomington. “The human body has no biological use for lead, so any amount of lead in the body can really be deemed unhealthy or unnecessary.”

Indra Frank, the Hoosier Environmental Council’s director of environmental health and water policy, further said the bill will help achieve an “ultimate goal” of preventing lead “from getting into our children in the first place.” She pointed to the Indiana Department of Health’s most recent annual report, which showed that more than 850 Hoosier children had unsafe levels of lead in their blood.

Concerns around water shutoffs 

But Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, repeatedly expressed concerns about tenants in small rental units who “could bear the brunt” of a water shutoff if their landlord isn’t responsive or cooperative when utilities seek to replace lead piping.

Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington (Monroe Bush for Indiana Capital Chronicle)

“If you have a recalcitrant owner, you can just go into the property, replace, and get the job done — or you’ve got this other option of disconnecting,” Pierce said. “My concern is that might end up punishing the tenants who don’t have any real control over the owner of the property.”

Bridget O’Connor, representing Citizens Energy Group, maintained that “our first priority is replacing lines — we do not want to have to disconnect service.” 

“But there is going to be, at the 10-year mark, a requirement for us to stop providing water through a lead service line. And so that disconnect language gives us some sort of last-ditch effort to stop serving water through those lines,” O’Connor said. “In our experience — we’ve been doing this program for two years — we have only had one property owner that’s flatout denied our ability to access, and it was an owner-occupied building.”

Even so, the committee approved a change to the bill to make clear that disconnecting water service is a last resort and should only be an option when a utility has tried and failed to enter a property.

“I’m just trying to figure out how to leverage the property owner without inflicting pain on these innocent third parties,” Pierce said. “They occupy it, so adding that direct leverage make sense to me.”


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Casey Smith
Casey Smith

A lifelong Hoosier, Casey Smith previously reported on the Indiana Legislature for The Associated Press. Internationally, she has reported on water quality across South America. She holds a master’s degree in investigative reporting and narrative science writing from the University of California/Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She previously earned degrees in journalism, anthropology and Spanish from Ball State University, where she now serves as an instructor of journalism.

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