BENNINGTON — The Select Board received some "incredibly good news" this week from Town Manager Stuart Hurd, who said Bennington will receive up to $11 million in reimbursements to replace lead water service lines connecting properties to town mains.
Hurd said the town landed the large authorization, which comes through the state Drinking Water Revolving Fund, because of preliminary testing and mapping that began here in 2018, putting Bennington ahead of other municipalities seeking funding.
Jason Dolmetsch, president of MSK Engineering and Design, had earlier advised the board about a pending opportunity to get 100 percent state reimbursement to replace building service lines containing lead — a toxic substance that was banned in 1986 but used extensively in older water system connections.
Hurd said it appears the town now has enough funding to complete two of three planned phases of what is envisioned as a multi-year line replacement project.
A preliminary estimate was that the work could cost up to $16 million, but the final figure will depend on how many lines are shown through testing to have lead and the bids received for construction.
"A lot will depend on the number of services [replaced] and the bid prices," Hurd said Tuesday.
In preparing for construction, the board also had proposed a bond authorization of up to $9.5 million, which voters approved during the annual March town meeting.
"This is the first [state] funding round for construction," Hurd said in an email. "We [earlier] received a planning grant of $80,000 to gather the information of how many lead service lines there are in the community. This is the entire [fiscal] 2021 appropriation. The bond requirement was part of the readiness effort to prove to the state that we were ready."
Although the amount approved is actually higher than the bond authorization of $9.5 million, Hurd added, "I am told that because this is 100 percent reimbursable; no additional bonding will be required."
The owners of properties involved will not be required to pay the cost of testing for lead or construction.
Dolmetsch said Tuesday that, in addition to survey work and testing for lead in lines completed last year, MSK is continuing to contact property owners in three sections of town believed to possibly contain lead service lines. The first part of that process will be mailings to owners, who can then schedule testing, which he said is being done under new protocols to avoid contact because of the coronavirus epidemic.
That might involve a test kit owners can receive to get a preliminary indication of lead in their interior lines or a sampling by MSK from outside hose connections.
Other sampling could involve giving owners a carbon filter unit to install on a faucet and collection of the filters later to examine the lead trapped. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is considering the use of such testing to determine lead levels in drinking water, Dolmetsch said.
Construction to begin
The goal is begin construction in the fall with a small project replacing about 140 lines where lead has been confirmed, he said, and to move to a larger project next spring.
He said about 1,700 of the town's 3,600 water hookups are considered possible areas where lead could be present, depending on whether lines, fixtures or other equipment has been replaced over the years.
The "vast majority" of properties in the central town date to before 1924, Dolmetsch said. The majority of service lines in the greater downtown area were installed from the late 1800s to about 1930, when lead lines were in use.
In addition to lead pipes, copper piping with lead solder in the joints can also cause elevated lead levels in drinking water above the state or federal guidelines, as could plumbing fixtures.
A $100,000 grant the town received in 2018 paved the way for the later efforts. That funded a study and outreach effort a pilot testing program, along with mapping of suspected areas where lead connector lines could be present.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien