Neighborhood awaits replacement of lead pipes

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Citizens Energy Group is replacing lead pipes on Euclid Avenue near East Michigan Street in conjunction with the city’s work to convert East Michigan and East New York streets from one-way traffic to two-way. (IBJ photo/ Eric Learned)

Citizens Energy Group is focusing on the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood in the utility’s next phase of a plan—predicted to cost $500 million—to replace all remaining lead service lines that connect Indianapolis homes and businesses to water.

Neighborhood residents, the NAACP, a grass-roots group called the Martindale-Brightwood Environmental Justice Collaborative and other advocates have long fought to prove the existence of high lead levels in Martindale-Brightwood and to eradicate neighborhood children’s exposure to lead.

The advocates’ work has led to multiple federal cleanups of a former industrial site in the neighborhood. And now, Citizens has chosen the area as the first full neighborhood for the company’s lead pipe replacement effort.

Citizens Energy began in 2022 to replace the city’s remaining lead water pipes, starting with seven projects that spanned just a few blocks. But the utility company will now seek to tackle a neighborhood—over four years—that stretches from Pogue’s Run up to East 34th Street and from the Monon Trail to Sherman Drive.

Citizens estimates that, citywide, 55,000 to 75,000 homes and businesses still rely on lead pipes; about 3,000 of those are in Martindale-Brightwood.

For residents, the utility company’s attention is welcome after decades of work to remediate the soil impacts of a former lead smelting plant in the neighborhood.

Lead water pipes are largely benign, according to a local researcher, who said water is a lesser contributor to blood lead levels than are sources such as lead paint or lead in the soil. But experts told IBJ that any amount of lead in the water is too much, and advocates say the community is weary of its exposure to the toxic element.

“We’re looking forward to the contaminated lead pipes being replaced,” said Liz Gore, chair of the Martindale-Brightwood Environmental Justice Collaborative. “We’ve come a long way. But we’re still working to make a difference there.”

Increased public pressure due to a 2014 water-contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, that drew national attention, plus an influx in federal and state funding, has led utility companies across the country to replace aging lead service lines.

Ben Easley

Citizens received $11 million in no-interest and forgivable loans for the Martindale-Brightwood project from the Indiana Finance Authority, which oversees the financing of certain public infrastructure projects.

Ben Easley, a spokesman for Citizens, told IBJ the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood was selected because most homes in the area are older, when lead service lines were commonly used in construction. Citizens will confirm where lead lines exist, then replace them. The utility is sending mailers to homeowners and businesses in the area to request access to properties for the work.

Citizens Energy Group is replacing lead pipes on Euclid Avenue near East Michigan Street in conjunction with the city’s work to convert East Michigan and East New York streets from one-way traffic to two-way. (IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

Higher levels

Lead exposure has been a concern in Martindale-Brightwood, where research has found elevated lead levels in children. The use of lead paint in older homes is a big contributor, along with lead left behind in soil—sometimes from industrial uses or even from the demolition of older properties—that gets tracked into homes as lead dust.

From 2000 to 2009, the Marion County Health Department collected thousands of blood samples from residents of Indianapolis citywide and from residents in the Martindale-Brightwood area. The findings showed blood lead levels were two to four times higher in children living in Martindale-Brightwood than in children in the rest of the city.

HealthNet, an Indianapolis-based chain of nine health care centers serving mostly low-income patients, tests blood levels every year at its eight local clinics, plus one in Bloomington. Last year, it found that the blood of 2,200 children who came to two of its clinics—the one in Martindale-Brightwood and one on East 10th Street—had higher levels of lead than did blood from children who visited its seven other clinics.

In 2023, levels tested at the Martindale-Brightwood clinic averaged 1.2 micrograms per deciliter. That’s a drop from 2020, when they averaged 1.53 micrograms per deciliter.

Over the same period, lead levels measured at the People’s Health Center on East 10th Street increased. That location had an average of 1.37 in 2020, and now has the highest blood lead levels of any HealthNet location, at 1.64 micrograms per deciliter.

Experts say all lead exposure is a concern. But the levels in Marion County are well below what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls its reference level, which is 3.5 micrograms per deciliter or higher. Only about 2.5% of the population nationwide is at or above that level. CDC guidelines say physicians who detect a level of 3.5 micrograms per deciliter should report the finding to state and local health authorities and take steps to investigate causes.

Dr. Varon Cantrell, HealthNet’s chief medical officer, told IBJ the centers aren’t seeing a significant number of patients with blood lead levels above the CDC reference level, likely in part due to recent efforts to detect and eradicate causes of lead exposure.

But, he noted, “There is no safe blood lead level.”

Dr. Varon Cantrell, chief medical officer of the Indianapolis-based HealthNet chain of health clinics, says, “There is no safe blood lead level.” (IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

Long-term impacts

In fact, the CDC says even a detectable level below 3.5 micrograms is reason for follow-up testing and education for parents, to help them avoid additional lead exposure.

And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says low levels of lead exposure have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells.

Cantrell said the most concerning impacts are in brain development. Lead exposure can manifest itself in attention problems, impulsivity and long-term intellectual disability.

“What happens is that it not only has an impact on the brain, but it also will have an impact on your future when it comes to being employable, meaning maintaining employment and contributing to the society,” he said.

Garry Holland

Garry Holland, a leader of the Indianapolis NAACP’s education committee, has been involved with tracking lead contamination in Indianapolis since 2017. That year, the NAACP worked to get mandatory lead testing in Indianapolis schools.

He’s concerned that higher lead concentrations, especially in diverse communities, harm the future of children raised in those neighborhoods.

And although there is no direct correlation between lead exposure and later criminal behavior, researchers point to possible associations. A 2023 review of research from George Washington University identified an association between exposure to lead and the later development of delinquent, antisocial and criminal behavior.

“People don’t connect the dots. Why is there a high population in the juvenile [justice] system?” Holland said. “What’s affecting their mind to where they cannot have a relationship, they have to turn to a gun?”

Environmental advocacy

Two decades ago, the Rev. Ray Wilkins hired an environmental consultant to assess a parcel of land for a planned expansion of his home church, Scott United Methodist. The assessment revealed potential environmental hazards, which were eventually linked by federal regulators to the operation of a lead smelting plant decades prior.

The area near East 21st and Hillside Avenue was once home to the American Lead Corp., which conducted lead smelting from 1946 to 1965. The same facility had an explosion in 1971.

As a result of the study paid for by Wilkins, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management came in to take samples. That study sampled soil at 221 residential properties and found high lead levels, resulting in a remediation overseen by the EPA that was completed in August 2007.

Gabriel Filippelli

But that cleanup doesn’t appear to have removed all the contamination. Beginning in 2012, Indiana University Center for Urban Health Director Gabriel Filippelli and volunteers with the Kheprw Institute’s Health Cities Project collected soil samples and tested sites for lead. Just under 2,000 samples were collected from about 500 properties, according to a report from Filippelli and his colleagues.

“The [first] cleanup was way inadequate,” Filippelli told IBJ.

The work by the IU researchers and others “kind of reopened the question, ‘Is there still lead lurking in these neighborhoods?’” he said. “And we found that, yes, indeed, there’s a whole lot of lead.”

That finding elicited another round of EPA cleanups. According to the IU researchers’ report, the lead levels were usually unsafe for children playing in the dirt and almost always at unsafe levels for gardening.

In 2016, the EPA conducted an emergency cleanup at some homes near the former American Lead facility. The next year, it completed the removal of more than 25,000 tons of lead-contaminated soil in the area. That involved sampling 454 properties for lead contamination and cleanup at 104 properties, including a playground and day care center. After a final EPA assessment in 2018, the federal agency turned the site back to the state.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management began another assessment of the site last year.

State and federal environmental groups “are still doing lead cleanups, even though that plant has been closed for decades,” Filippelli said. The former facility is now owned by AJV Properties, a Fishers-based holding company. The lawyer listed on AJV’s secretary of state filing declined to comment on cleanup efforts.

The remediation work is driven, at least in part, by community organizing through the Martindale-Brightwood Environmental Justice Collaborative, which Wilkins formed.

“They are a wonderful resource for the neighborhood in demanding that they get compensated in some form or another for the environmental injustice that has occurred in that area,” Karla Johnson, Marion County Public Health Department administrator, told IBJ.

Wilkins was later reassigned to a different church, and Gore took over as leader of the group. She was president of the Martindale-Brightwood Community Development Corp. in 2008 when she joined the collaborative.

“I have been working diligently, just as he would have, with other community people who had the same passion to make sure that lead was not going to be a prevalent theme in the community,” Gore said.

Expensive undertaking

Citizens’ work on the water pipes is the latest effort to reduce lead exposure in the neighborhood.

Lead plumbing and service lines are particularly common in older homes, especially those built before 1950. By 1970, experts say, most homes were built without lead service lines or plumbing. A 1986 federal law made it illegal to build homes with lead service lines.

The lines are mostly harmless when intact, Filippelli told IBJ. But they can become problematic, as they did in 2014 in Flint, Michigan, after the city switched its water source to one with different chemistry. The new water was corrosive to the aging pipes, causing lead particles to leach.

No problem like that has been reported in Indianapolis. Still, Citizens is working to replace the city’s remaining lead lines, which are owned by customers, not the utility. The company estimates the work will cost roughly $500 million.

In 2022, the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission approved $22.7 million from the state for the first five-year phase of work. The utility has completed 800 lead service line replacements so far and hopes to ramp up the process when more funding becomes available, Easley said in a statement.

Ratepayers are bearing a portion of the replacement cost. Since 2022, residential customers have been paying about $1 more per month toward the project, according to Easley.

“The goal is to minimize the impact that this program will have on customers’ bills by seeking alternative funding, but ultimately some of the program costs will be reflected in customer rates,” he wrote in an email.

The company says it’s also pursuing grants and more low-interest loans.

In Martindale-Brightwood, the cost will be covered by the $11 million in loans. The replacement work there is expected to take four years.

Citizens is also working with the Indianapolis Department of Public Works to replace pipes along thoroughfares on the east side that are being converted from one-way streets to two-way. Residents and businesses on Michigan Street and New York Street from College Avenue to Ellenberger Park will be impacted by that work.

It’s an expensive undertaking in part because Citizens has only a vague understanding of where the lead lines exist. Aging homes and site visits for utility work will provide the best evidence to start, but Citizens will have to dig in some areas to determine what pipes lie underground, Easley said.

A state law passed this year by a bipartisan group of legislators aims to quicken the pace of these replacements.

Senate Bill 5, authored by Sens. Eric Koch, R-Bedford; Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso; and Andrea Hunley, D-Indianapolis, gives utility companies more authority to take action when landlords are blocking their access to lead pipes.

Filippelli said that, since the 2014 water crisis in Michigan, states across the country have taken similar legislative action.•

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that customers own the lead pipes that are being replaced, not the utility. Also, the story now says that the work in Martindale-Brightwood will be funded by $11 million in forgivable and no-interest loans. See more corrections here.

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4 thoughts on “Neighborhood awaits replacement of lead pipes

  1. I a little disappointed in citizens energy. They estimate there are 55,000 to 75,000 lead service lines. This has been a known problem since the 80’s Citizen’s has been in control for almost 13 years. I’m not sure why they can’t pin down the extent of the problem by a margin closer than 25%. It’s a pretty simple inspection process.

  2. Spending $22.7 million to replace 800 lead service lines means it costs an average of $28,375 to replace each line. Before spending another $480 million, perhaps they should use the scientific method and start measuring the lead levels in those 800 homes compared to the surrounding community in a longitudinal study. That way, we can see the actual difference this makes. FWIW, the typical American blood lead level is .855 milligrams/deciliter. [Not advocating for higher lead counts, but it’s a little overly dramatic to say there is no safe level when each of us likely has some amount of lead in their blood.]

  3. I haven’t read the article yet because I haven’t got past the first paragraph! I lived downtown and I replaced the lead service line from the main all the way into the house at my own expense maybe 20 years ago. It cost me $5000 then. This including digging up and repairing the street, installing a new meter pit, and boring the line under the curb, sidewalk, flower beds and into the house. The $500,000,000 estimate seems ridiculous! Assuming the low number of 55,000 lines, that is almost $10,000 per line. On top of this, cities in Michigan where they are way ahead of this problem, have the process down to where the price is closer to $1000 a line.

    Without seeing all of the details, I have to call BS on the $500,000,000 price tag.

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