President Joe Biden has repeatedly bragged that the bipartisan infrastructure bill germinating in the U.S. Senate will spur the removal of America’s toxic drinking water pipes made of lead.
“It will put plumbers and pipe fitters to work replacing all of the nation’s lead water pipes, so every child and every American can turn on the faucet at home or school and drink clean water,” Biden said last week, “including in low-income communities and communities of color that have been disproportionally affected by dangerous lead pipes.”
But the bill does not require water utilities to replace lead pipes. Rather, it provides $15 billion to a revolving fund that utilities can use to replace lead pipes if they want ― something that’s only happened in a handful of cities to date.
“Unless the utilities are required to do it, we’re concerned that a lot of utilities won’t,” Erik Olson, a water policy expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told HuffPost.
Biden originally proposed $45 billion for removing lead pipes as part of what the White House called the American Jobs Plan, an early outline of the infrastructure bill. That sum reflected the expert consensus about how much it would cost to remove the roughly 10 million lead service lines connecting water mains to buildings around the country.
Replacing a single service line can cost thousands of dollars, because it typically requires digging up the ground in front of the building to get at the pipe. Water utilities have insisted they’re not responsible for the portions of pipe that lie within someone’s property line, making removal a huge collective action problem.
The infrastructure bill, as drafted, would plow just $15 billion earmarked for pipe replacement into the Environmental Protection Agency’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. The bill would not amend the Safe Drinking Water Act to require utilities to replace the pipes.
“Is it going to be enough to deal with every lead pipe in the country? Probably not, but we’ll make great progress,” Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, told HuffPost.
Fifteen billion dollars is certainly more than Congress has ever allocated for lead pipe removal. Lawmakers in 2016 allocated $100 million for lead pipe replacement in Flint, Michigan, after the city suffered an egregious spike in water lead ― which state and federal officials initially dismissed, even though the city’s corroded lead pipes were spewing brown water into Flint homes.
But $15 billion is probably not enough to get all the pipes. The Natural Resources Defense Council has estimated there are somewhere between 9.7 million and 12.8 million lead service lines in the 50 states, and the EPA puts the average pipe replacement cost at $4,700 ― meaning $45 billion would be almost enough to get them all.
Biden, however, has said almost every day that the bill will get the whole job done with $15 billion.
“It’s going to eliminate all lead pipes in America, so people have decent drinking water,” Biden said Monday during a Democratic fundraiser. A White House fact sheet on Tuesday said the bill will replace “all of the nation’s lead pipes.”
Lead is a deadly neurotoxin, and drinking water that’s flowed through lead pipes can lower young children’s IQs and increase the risk of pregnant women suffering miscarriages. Lead has been known to be unhealthy since Roman times, but it’s a soft metal that’s good for making pipes, and in the 20th century the lead industry encouraged cities to use it for water lines.
The Safe Drinking Water Act requires utilities to test water samples from people’s homes and treat the water to make it less corrosive to lead pipes. Utilities only have to replace the pipes if the home water samples show excessive amounts of lead, creating a strong incentive for them to avoid testing in homes known to have lead service lines.
Under Biden, the EPA suspended the Trump administration’s pending revision to its drinking water lead regulation, which has been in limbo for years.
“These lead lines will last forever unless you take ’em out,” Harold Harrington, a master plumber in Flint, Michigan, said Tuesday during a conference call with the United Association of Union Plumbers and Pipefitters and the green business group E2.
The groups called attention to an economic impact analysis of Biden’s original lead pipe proposal, which found that it would create and support 56,080 good-paying jobs annually for a decade. The proposal in the bipartisan infrastructure bill would do less.
“Fifteen billion will not get the job done,” E2 executive director Bob Keefe said.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.Y.) ― the former mayor of Newark, New Jersey, one of the few U.S. cities to replace all its lead service lines ― said the Senate is squandering its opportunity to replace pipes nationwide.
“This is the moment for America to do it,” Booker told HuffPost. “It actually saves us money in the long run, because children with lead poisoning are far less productive and have far higher medical costs.”
Booker lamented “the moral obscenity of having our best talent poisoned” in such a preventable way.
“I live in a community that’s seen and ravages of lead poisoning for decades now with lead paint, lead water,” he said. “We have a moral obligation to do this.”
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