Here’s to Lead-Free Drinking Water

Terry H. Schwadron

April 2, 2021

Absorbing the myriad details of Joe Biden’s infrastructure and jobs bill — or two bills — I couldn’t help but think about the mostly Black residents of Flint, Mich., who, for years, have been drinking bottled water after being poisoned by lead pipes that their state government allowed, endangering a generation of children.

While there are too many projects in these infrastructure efforts to make for easy categorization either in substance, location, exact project, cost or the politics of passage, I would hope there is at least one easy agreement to be had: The bill seeks $111 billion in a total infrastructure estimate of $2.25 trillion to provide clean drinking water by replacing 100% of lead pipes and service lines remaining in the country’s water supplies. Specifically, the bill earmarks $45 billion to the EPA’s existing Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and in Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (WIIN) grants.

If we could agree across aisles on the projects, perhaps it would be easier to find solution to the costs. The early Republican opposition is about spending and taxes to pay for programs rather than on the substance of what needs doing.

As Bloomberg News called it, it is Biden’s Moonshot Approach to Replacing Lead Water Pipes, though, of course, this set of proposals is part of a larger plan that will undergo a variety of Congressional surgeries over the next months.

According to Team Biden, this will reduce lead exposure in 400,000 schools and child care centers and millions of homes, while creating union and prevailing wage jobs to do the work.

As with the criticisms on both sides of the political aisle, the number is at once too much and too little. To conservatives, it is an expensive investment in people’s health rather than some more acceptable corporate giveaway, for example, while to progressives, it may not be enough because no one knows exactly how much lead piping is still out there and there could be lead pipes within buildings and homes.

Flint has spent years spending in what amounts to government shame to replace pipes that were carrying poisons all because the state wanted to save money on its water sources and switched to a polluted river. Now, a few former state officials are facing criminal charges. But Flint residents still don’t trust the water — for good reason.

The Problem

The EPA estimates that there are between 6 to 10 million lead service lines in the country; news reports have surfaced about lead poisoning across the nation in Newark, Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore and Milwaukee. The records about where lead pipes are in use are unreliable, say experts.

The EPA says lead from pipes, faucets and solder can enter drinking water when the plumbing corrode, especially where the water has high acidity or low mineral content that accelerates deterioration. Lead pipes connect the home to the water main through service lines, that are typically the most significant source of lead in the water, particularly in older cities and homes built before 1986 when a Safe Drinking Water Act reduced the maximum allowable lead content.

Young children are particularly vulnerable to lead because the physical and behavioral effects of lead; even lowered levels of lead in adults can have a significant effect on a child, affecting the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells. It can lead to seizures or death. This is true whether lead comes from discarded flakes from old paint or through the water systems (there is a separate planned housing improvements proposal in the bill).

Lead is also a danger for pregnancy and the health of a developing fetus. Weirdly, you never hear the need for common-sense lead remediation programs like this one from the same conservatives who argue against abortion.

While it’s generally true that America’s drinking water is safe, the vast lines of aging lead pipes show the fragility of the systems that is every bit the danger of breaking bridges.

One question is how we got here. While lead is highly toxic, for more than a century we knew it simply to be dense, durable and malleable for construction, nearly impervious to rust and decay from soil. That made it perfect for those water service pipes with all the twists and turns required for building construction. Author Seth M. Siegel described in his book Troubled Water that “Despite lead being more expensive than steel or other pipes, lead pipes were a better investment for municipalities and building owners because they lasted so much longer.” For decades, we had another victory of profit over public health.

When it became clear that there were health risks, utilities started squirting chemicals into drinking water that would coat the inside of lead pipes. But those coatings proved fallible, as in Flint, where the change in water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River, spiked toxic results.

The New Plans

So, here’s the Biden plan: Modernize water systems “by scaling up existing, successful programs,” including by providing $56 billion in grants and low-cost flexible loans to states, tribes, territories, and disadvantaged communities. Add $10 billion to monitor and remediate drinking water lines and to invest in rural small water systems and household well and wastewater systems. And fund the EPA work at $45 billion.

It could take 20 years to dig up old pipes and replace them, with an average cost of $5,000 per line towards the 6–10 million problem areas.

The EPA has allotted about a billion each year to the problem; this bill would front the money to get things done. A successful program would require cooperation and coordination from cities and states, and the consent of homeowners and building owners. Money aside, the homeowner eventually will at least have to work with local utilities for intrusive pipe tear-ups and replacement work.

Still, it’s got to be better than worrying about the health of children and running around for bottled water every week — to say nothing of the cost of those programs.

This being America, someone, somewhere is suing in court over all of this remediation work — and will find the Biden approach objectionable.

A group of nine states are seeking a federal appeals court’s review of the EPA’s latest regulations for lead and copper drinking water pipelines.

It’s not immediately clear whether the Biden bill would replace other efforts already underway in Congress. The

House Energy and Commerce Democrats have a $300-billion package (H.R. 1848) that includes language authorizing $22.5 billion over the next few years for replacing lead service lines in drinking water through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is considering the bipartisan Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act of 2021 (S. 914), which would invest more than $35 billion in water resource development projects across the country, according to a summary of the bill. That legislation includes a provision to reauthorize EPA’s lead reduction projects grant program and increase its funding level to $100 million annually through fiscal year 2026.

Skipping over the legislative tactics involved, it would seem a good chance to say this is appropriate government work in the name of public health.


Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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