Halifax Water will soon roll out a program to encourage homeowners to replace any lead water lines running between their home and the street. 

An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 homes in the city have lateral lead service lines running under private property, and a further 2,500 are estimated to run under public land. The majority of the publicly owned distribution system is lead-free.

In a decision from the provincial Utility and Review Board handed down Tuesday, Halifax Water now has permission to offer subsidies to homeowners who want to replace their lines. 

"It's very important. Lead has a number of health issues that are well-known and well-identified," said James Campbell, the communications and public relations co-ordinator for Halifax Water. 

"So essentially Halifax Water can now, with the consent of the customer, work on private property. We can replace the lead service line from the main, which is the pipe in the street, all the way to the meter in the customer's house."

25 per cent subsidy

On average, Halifax Water estimates it costs a homeowner about $5,000 to replace a lead service line on his or her property. 

Under the new subsidy program, the utility will give a grant of 25 per cent of the replacement cost, up to a maximum of $2,500. The remaining 75 per cent will have to be financed by the homeowner. 

However, Halifax Water has started to work with the municipality to figure out a city-run financing program that would be available to homeowners to cover those costs. 

City financing?

"I know there's been some chatter with senior staff and Halifax Water … can the municipality offer an incentive program?" said Dartmouth Centre Coun. Sam Austin. 

Austin added that nothing has formally come to council yet, but described the idea as similar to the municipality's Solar City program.

"You would pay the cost, but it would be repaid in a long stint … on your property tax bill," he said. 

Austin said although he would wait to see the details of any proposal, he's generally supportive of removing all the lead from the city's water system. He feels it will be important to his neighbourhood, which he suspects has some lead pipes despite a pre-amalgamation purge. 

"The City of Dartmouth went through and they eliminated basically all the lead pipes from the publicly-owned section," he said. "The problem is, a lot of homeowners who were attached to it didn't recognize the value at the time. It was a different era.

"So there's a lot of lead pipes that exist from the house out to the property line in Dartmouth. And we don't know how many of those there are, but of course that's still a potential source of lead." 

System cost

Halifax Water's goal is to have a lead-free system by 2050, said Campbell. Right now it is replacing 25 to 50 lead lines each year, but it estimates it will have to average about 300 replacements a year to meet its target date. 

Campbell said although Halifax Water does not have the power to force customers to replace lead lines that run on private property, he hopes homeowners will view the 25 per cent subsidy as enticing enough to participate. 

"We certainly hope so," he said. "We're trying to increase the uptake of this program. We recognized one of the main barriers for folks is the cost of actually replacing those lines."

The subsidy is expected to cost the utility $12.5 million dollars over the next 30 years, and possibly less if some of the work can be timed to combine with the municipality's street restoration work. 

"It's a very small cost when considered with our overall budget," Campbell said.

The subsidy would by paid for by the overall rate base, but Campbell said ratepayers would not see a rate hike in order to pay for it. 

"This would be a miniscule factor in the overall cost of operating our utility," he said. 

"Getting these things out of the lateral system is the main objective. So it's an insignificant cost in the overall budget that Halifax Water operates. We're in the public health and safety business, and this is a very important public health issue."