Biden’s plan to replace lead pipes would be a massive, expensive project

Steve Carmody reports on the cost of replacing lead pipes.

President Biden plans to spend more than $ 2 trillion on rebuilding the country’s aging infrastructure. A piece of it would replace all of the lead pipes that connect the houses to the city’s water pipes.

“Everyone remembers what happened in Flint, there are hundreds of Flints all over America,” said Biden.

The Flint, Michigan experience is not just a cautionary tale of the dangers of infrastructure decay. But it is also a warning of the challenges of addressing the country’s lead pipe problem.

Harold Harrington, who lives in Flint, is a master plumber. Right now he’s digging in his toolbox.

“That came from my house,” he said. “That piece of galvanized steel was in my basement, it fed my upstairs tap and that’s fine from my upstairs bathroom.” It’s full of lead. “

Flint’s lead crisis began in 2014 when the city’s drinking water source was switched to save money. The new water source was improperly treated, which damaged old pipes that leached lead into the drinking water.

To fix the problem, Flint replaced lead and galvanized tubing with new copper tubing.

Harrington helped with this and says it is not easy. For example, they are not always straight. Harrington holds up an old lead pipe twisted like a pretzel.

“They’re not just going to dig a hole because they’ve been there longer than the gas lines, the cable lines, the fiber optic lines. You have tree roots that have grown over the past hundred years, “he said.” It’s not that easy to dig a hole. Or dig a hole in one place and get bored of it. You have sidewalks, streets. It’s a big project and each of them is different. “

Even if it can be determined whether the pipe in the ground is all lead, copper, or a combination, it can be tricky. Old water department records may be incomplete or out of date. And for decades, the water suppliers only replaced the pipes to the property line, which resulted in Franconian pipes with a mixture of galvanized lead and copper – which now have to be completely replaced.

Since 2016, the City of Flint has inspected more than 26,000 service lines and replaced nearly 10,000 lead and galvanized pipes.

Michigan Congressman Dan Kildee has spent the past six years using federal funds to mitigate the leader’s long-term health effects on his hometown neighbors.

“If $ 15 or 20 million had been allocated ten years ago to modernize the Flint water system and remove pipelines, the $ half billion already committed could potentially have been avoided.”

“The Biden plan is well overdue,” said Erik Olsen of the Defense Council for Natural Resources. Olsen says lead and galvanized tubing continue to be a problem despite the 1986 ban.

“A lot of people think this is just a problem, like in Flint or some big, older cities,” he said. “But in fact, it’s spread across the country and it really is a huge public health threat.”

Lead can damage the brain and kidneys.

Of particular concern is the effect lead can have on young children. Lead exposure can slow development in children under the age of seven and lead to learning and behavioral problems.

Nationwide, the number of lead and galvanized pipes to be replaced is estimated at eight to ten million. The Biden proposal calls for $ 45 billion in spending.

But it could be more expensive.

The American Water Works Association estimates the cost could exceed $ 60 billion. That concerns Allen Overton. He is the pastor of Flint’s Christ Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church. Overton joined others suing to get the city to replace all of its leading service lines. Now he fears that disadvantaged communities could lose if more affluent suburbs storm in and exhaust the federal funding proposed by the Biden government.

“People in brown, black, African American, and Latin American communities that we know are going to have some downsides anyway. Let’s start there, ”Overton said.

Others wonder if replacing lead service lines should be such a high priority. Replacing lead pipes accounts for nearly half of the Biden administration’s proposed spending ($ 110 billion) to upgrade the country’s water systems.

But by some estimates, the US has to spend nearly nine times (one trillion dollars) that much.

David La France of the American Water Works Association says it has been too long since the last major update to the country’s drinking and wastewater infrastructure.

“After the Second World War, a large investment was made in distribution systems. These pipes all grow up and all need to be replaced. We are there today. “

But even with federal support, there will likely be those who refuse to replace old service lines.

And there is even a certain reluctance in Michigan – which has its own mandate to remove all senior service lines within the next two decades.

In the small town of Mason, some of the city’s estimated 1,400 power lines date back to the 19th century.

Mayor Russ Whipple says Mason was already slowly replacing old pipes during routine road works and insisting there was no need to speed them up.

“Our lead almost never reaches the threshold. If it does, it hardly does. And usually we find that it was because of a bad test. “

Despite his reservations, Whipple says if federal funding becomes available … his community will likely file an application.

Just a stone’s throw from Mason in Lansing, the state capital, the city’s water company has already replaced all of the leading utility lines.

But it wasn’t easy and it took 12 years.

Dick Peffley is the general manager of the Lansing Board of Water and Light.

He says most Lansing residents are willingly willing to let supply crews into their homes and dig up their lawns to replace the pipes. But some didn’t. And Peffley says the utility must use what he calls “hard love.”

“We just sent out a number of letters saying, ‘Look, we need to have your lead service replaced for your own safety. We might be forced to turn off your water and we will turn it on when we offer a new service. ‘That letter got your attention,’ said Peffley.

The City of Flint hopes to soon be among the communities that have completely replaced all of their senior service lines.

Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley plans to inspect the last 500 service lines this summer.

“It’s … it’s a journey,” he said, “and we’re ending this journey now.”

It is a trip that many American cities need help with.

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