St. Paul Regional Water hires 30 new employees to speed lead line replacement – St. Paul Pioneer Press

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Over the course of 10 years, St. Paul Regional Water intends to replace every lead pipe servicing private property in St. Paul, free of charge to homeowners.
To accomplish that, the utility is growing its workforce by at least 10 percent, including 30 new hires who start Monday.
The effort to replace lead service lines extending from home water meters got underway last year with the removal of an initial 350 lines. Another 850 could be replaced this year, following the hiring of 30 new employees and additional trainees.
As challenging as it will be to maintain funding and recruit workers, one of the trickiest aspects of the program has been getting permission from property owners.
“Some people aren’t understanding why we’re reaching out,” said Racquel Vaske, assistant general manager of St. Paul Regional Water.
Lead exposure has been shown to seriously harm the development of children, causing lower IQ, poor school performance and attention problems, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Line replacement is free under the program but typically costs at least $6,000.
Interested homeowners are asked to update their contact information and fill out a “letter of intent” form linked from an online map of lead-lined properties at tinyurl.com/LeadReplace2023. They also can call the lead service team at 651-266-6820.
The service lines extend from the public water main toward the center of the road and, beginning just under the curb, snake through private property to connect with a home water meter. St. Paul Regional Water — which also serves some suburban communities — thinks there are 26,000 lead pipes among the 95,000 service lines in its system, and most of them are in St. Paul.
To select priority project areas, the utility is focusing half its work on streets that already were scheduled to be opened up for road reconstruction or utility replacement by the city, the county, Xcel Energy or another agency. That way the same street doesn’t have to be opened twice.
“It minimizes the disturbance to the property owners and the public,” said Patrick Shea, general manager of St. Paul Regional Water. “We don’t want to be in a street that was just reconstructed two years ago.”
The other half of line replacements will take place in historically-disadvantaged communities and low-income areas with a high concentration of children under the age of 5, particularly daycares.
That said, if the water utility gets enough letters of interest from a given street and a federal grant becomes available, the utility could prioritize that area, Shea said.
Given the number of factors involved, from funding to road construction schedules, it’s hard to predict when lead replacement will be available for a particular area.
“We don’t have a block-by-block schedule laid out,” Shea acknowledged. “There’s too many variables. It leads to a lot of misunderstanding if something doesn’t play out.”
To promote the lead pipe replacement program, the utility hired two lead coordinators to work with customers, with more to come.
One coordinator is fluent in ethnic Karen, the language spoken by a refugee population from Burma that has settled in sizable numbers around Maplewood, Roseville and St. Paul’s North End. Another new hire is fluent in Spanish, and outreach materials already have been translated into multiple languages.
Some of the 30 new employees in a variety of jobs will need to get training and certifications before they’re ready to hit the field.
Vaske has spent at least the past nine months developing the recruitment and training program, with a focus on residents who live within St. Paul, which historically hasn’t yielded many candidates. To change that, the utility has replaced its low-wage, temporary summer jobs with 10 trainees who will be eligible to join the Laborers’ International Union of North America after one year.
“We really encourage people to give it a shot,” Vaske said. “We’re not expecting people to have those skills on the first day.”
The trainee jobs drew 110 applicants, including 75 from within the local service area. If enough continue into entry-level work each year, the utility could have an answer to the labor shortage that has beset industries across the board.
“We’re hopeful that this trainee position is a forever thing,” Vaske said. “In theory, we’ll hire 10 trainees now and into the future every summer.”
St. Paul Regional Water is funding much of the project with a portion of the city’s share of American Rescue Plan dollars, which means they can only replace lines inside city limits for now. They also received small grants from the Minnesota Department of Health and are looking for more money.
The federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will direct $215 million to Minnesota over the course of five years for lead pipe replacement, and the water utility is applying to the state for $15 million of that to cover program costs over the next year alone.
Gov. Tim Walz on Thursday proposed spending another $250 million of the state budget surplus on lead pipe replacement statewide.
St. Paul Regional Water offers free water testing kits at 1900 Rice St. For more information, as well as tips on how to avoid lead in drinking water, visit tinyurl.com/LeadReplace2023 or call customer service at 651-266-6350.
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