With the passing of the bipartisan infrastructure bill (H.R. 3684: Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act), we now have an incredible opportunity in front of us to make millions of toxic lead water pipes in this country a thing of the past.
The infrastructure bill passed on Friday is a great start to getting rid of these toxic pipes with $15 billion earmarked for “lead service line identification, planning, design and replacement” over the next five years.
The reconciliation package (Build Back Better Act) is still in play, and could add another $9 billion (down from $30 billion in an earlier version) to lead service line replacement. While it is not the $45 billion President Biden proposed earlier in the year, the allocated $24 billion is still roughly half of the estimated need to replace all lead lines in this country. Nonetheless, listening to committee hearings in previous weeks in which a few of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Members balked at investing billions towards this, with one of them saying that lead pipes are “not the responsibility of the federal government” and another referring to the funding as a “bailout of cities,” I see we still have much work to do to convey the urgency and opportunity of this moment.
A recent study showed that half of American children have lead in their blood. In Benton Harbor, Mich., recent lead levels in drinking water exceed those in Flint at the height of its crisis with some samples testing many times the EPA lead action level of 15 parts per billion. The urgency of this crisis is real, especially for Black and brown communities, low-income communities, and our most vulnerable residents and children.
Yet, despite this urgency, addressing lead pipes has fallen by the wayside until recently, certainly not because of the “mismanagement at the local level” as offered as a reason by one member of Congress several weeks ago, but in part because of competing and often overwhelming challenges at the local level. Many of the approximately 50,000 water utilities in our country are dealing not just with lead but with other contaminants, in addition to capacity, management and resource issues. One municipal water utility manager in Minnesota told me his predecessor handed him a set of keys—no other training or information shared—when he took his job, and the only lead pipes he knows of are the ones he comes across through routine excavating or meter work (something I hear a lot). Water utilities are also on the frontlines of public trust, and as one manager in New York relayed to me, once that trust is lost, it is difficult to build back.
I ask every municipality I speak with what prevents them from replacing lead lines faster, and a few of them are not sure they could speed up replacement even if money was not a consideration, because of human capacity. Several other communities I have spoken with have no idea whether they have lead pipes or where they are, and don’t have the resources to find them. Most smaller municipalities I have spoken with have not accessed federal funding, and I know from Environmental Policy Innovation Center’s (EPIC) own research that only 7.1 percent of eligible drinking water systems have received assistance from Drinking Water State Revolving Funds (DWSRFs) over the last decade—and this is where much of the new federal funding from the infrastructure bill is headed.
Where we stand now: The bipartisan infrastructure bill has passed, which includes $15 billion for lead service line replacement over the next five years, 49 percent of which will not require repayment (100 percent principal forgiveness loans or grants). None of the funds will require a state match.
These federal dollars are an important and historic investment, but now let‘s bolster this funding with even stronger policies:
Ban partial lead service line replacement: The earlier reconciliation bill included a prohibition on partial lead replacement for this funding, while the current version also specifies that the funds will cover “full service line replacement” in disadvantaged communities (through the lead reduction grant program under section 1459B(b) of the Safe Drinking Water Act). The pending Lead and Copper Rule Revisions steer us toward full replacement, and a patchwork of states have banned partial lead service line replacements except in emergency repairs, most recently New Jersey and Illinois. That said, the approach has been piecemeal across the country, and we need this in no uncertain terms moving forward, with strong federal mandates, tying full service line replacement to all federal funding.
Mandate lead inventories and maps: Several members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee weeks ago pointed to the fact that we don’t know where the lead lines are as a reason not to fund their replacement, and one member clearly implied this is only a problem in cities, saying lead pipes can’t be found in a “house or a building or a school.” That is simply wrong, but we need the evidence to show people how real this problem is and where these lines are. If 11,000 communities have lead pipes, adding up to 6-10 million (or more) across the country, what percentage of them have even been identified? Not many. Until there is a mandate to identify them, the problem remains hard to solve. The mandate for identifying lead pipes in the Lead and Copper Rule Revisions is key to help speed up replacement across the country. If the Lead and Copper Rule Revisions become effective on December 16, 2021, the deadline for compliance is October 16, 2024. We cannot delay this mandate any longer than that.
Tougher regulations: EPIC’s Tim Male and I argued earlier in the year for the EPA to put the Lead and Copper Rule Revisions into effect sooner to ensure the stronger parts of the rule like the inventory and mapping mandate described above move forward without delay. Ensuring the weaker parts are revised soon after that is another key step. In particular, public health advocates have consistently and rightly argued for a health-based standard in place of the action level. The revised rules stick with the action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb) established under the original 1991 rule, only adding a trigger level of 10 ppb, so this still does not take into account the fact that EPA’s Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) for lead is zero (meaning no level is safe), and ultimately, it leaves people still being exposed to lead in drinking water. It’s also questionable whether the replacement rate of 3 percent will help us achieve replacement of all lead pipes in a decade, which is where we want to be.
Funding for technical assistance: The reason we at EPIC have launched a technical assistance program for small cities that are trying to replace lead service lines is because we came across so many of them who needed help just getting started. The reason we are launching a Funding Navigator to help municipalities access funding is because we know they need that kind of support too. While states are allowed to use funding for technical assistance, not enough of them do as one of my colleagues at EPIC has pointed out, and this needs to change if we truly want to see municipalities get the lead out.
Funding education and community outreach: Lead service line replacement is a unique water quality issue because it requires knowledge and action on the part of individual homeowners and landlords. Community organizations, grassroots groups and environmental justice organizations are all on the frontlines of lead poisoning alongside residents, have the trust of residents, and often gear their outreach in multiple languages. These organizations are worth including in solutions, funding and programming to build a collaborative and community-focused approach from the onset and build the trust that is needed in our water supplies. As many of these advocates have pointed out, funding for water filters for residents with known lead pipes and contamination—and as a supplement to corrosion control if necessary—is also a need, until the pipes can be replaced. Grants for water filtration stations in schools and childcare programs in disadvantaged communities is part of the current Build Back Better Act.
Equity in eligibility: Many community advocates have asked the question: if disadvantaged communities were not receiving this funding before, what makes us so sure they will if we increase the funding? Examining who is eligibleand defining what we mean by “disadvantaged” is what Justice40 and others at the state level are doing and will need to do, to ensure greater equity – not only in lead service line replacement but in other programs trying to benefit these communities.
Communications and accessible information: Getting timely and accessible information to residents and ensuring programs are geared toward our most vulnerable residents should be a goal of all lead service line replacement programs, and will help build and maintain public trust at a critical moment when lead service lines are being revealed through the inventorying process. At EPIC, we included communications and equity as categories in our 2021 Water Data Prize on lead, because we wanted to push the envelope on encouraging ideas and innovation in these areas so residents know when their water is safe to drink and what to do when it is not.
Workforce development: A recent report indicated that replacing 100 percent of the nation’s lead service lines would create 56,000 jobs lasting at least 10 years and drive about $104 billion into the nation’s economy (roughly double the estimated cost of replacing all lead pipes). Based on anecdotal conversations with utilities in smaller cities, this will require workforce development and training to add additional capacity. How will we ensure these jobs go to a more diverse workforce, representing the diversity of cities and other municipalities that have lead service lines? Although workforce development was part of President Biden’s initial plan, the infrastructure bill perhaps didn’t go far enough. To achieve effective and efficient lead service line replacement, creating new apprenticeship programs to train the local labor force and focusing on equity in hiring and training will be important. When the last lead pipes are replaced in Newark, N.J., at perhaps the fastest rates seen in the country, their apprenticeship program may be one of the factors in their success.
Effective procurement mechanisms: How funds get to plumbers and contractors—and how fast—is a key question. EPIC spoke with some of the country’s leading experts who are innovating in ways that can and should be replicated:impact investing to get the lead out in Newark and install green infrastructure in Buffalo, N.Y., and implementing public private partnerships for green infrastructure in Prince George’s County, Md. How can we encourage more of these innovative strategies to speed up lead service line replacement around the country? EPIC explored these strategies in a recent report, arguing that funding alone is not enough.
Ensure cost controls: We have heard from municipalities in Wisconsin who say that replacing lead pipes can be as little as $1,500 per pipe, but yet other municipalities have told us it costs them $8,000-$10,000 per pipe, and then others even higher like the $27,000 cited by Chicago. Some of this cost variation is inevitable but controlling costs as much as possible in addition to other innovative strategies to cut costs, including creating economies of scale, is another path forward.
Strong local policies: Newark has replaced approximately more than 20,000 lead lines in just over two years, and many other municipalities are looking to replicate this success. In 2019, Newark passed a local ordinance making lead service line replacement mandatory for city residents and enabled the city to enter properties to replace lead service lines even if an owner does not sign up for the program. This policy became a model for the state, and also is cited as a primary reason for their success. Replicating this throughout the country will enable more cities to follow Newark’s example.
Holistic policies to address childhood lead poisoning: New York State has both the greatest number (3.3 million) and the highest percentage (43.1 percent) of housing stock built before 1950, which means that lead in drinking water is not the only problem here or in other states with old housing stock. If lead poisoning, specifically childhood lead poisoning, is the root problem we are trying to solve, then addressing it holistically as a household issue (present in water, paint, dust and soil) is the long-term solution. Many community groups and advocates already know this, and our state and federal policies need to move in this direction too.
In the end, I remain hopeful at what I am seeing in Washington with the passing of the historic bipartisan infrastructure bill, but I am also hoping there is much more funding and policy yet to come to get rid of lead pipes once and for all.
Maureen Cunningham serves as chief strategy officer and director of water strategy at the Environmental Policy Innovation Center (EPIC), where she is launching an incentive program for small municipalities to remove lead service lines, and is an elected Town Councilmember in Bethlehem, N.Y.