Buffalo needs to accelerate removal of lead water pipes

The good news for Buffalo is that federal aid may be available for the critical work of removing lead from thousands of water pipes. The challenging news is that with that money, the city's planned 25-year project would have to be completed in 10 years.

So much better. Lead is toxic, whether in drinking water or in paint chips. The opportunity to accelerate the program with money from Washington is a gift to the city and its residents.

Buffalo has done a good job of maintaining the integrity of its lead water pipes. Without treatment, these pipes can corrode and allow leaded water to flow into restaurants, homes, fountains and other locations. This is what has been failing in Flint, Michigan since 2014, creating two crises: public health and political.

Although the use of lead pipes was banned in the 1980s, the presence of lead in drinking water continues to pose a dangerous threat to many people across the country.

But Buffalo's good work comes at a price, as federal aid increases as the condition of the pipes deteriorates. In Flint, corrosion protection was catastrophically poor. Things weren't going particularly well in Newark, New Jersey, either, where Mayor Ras Baraka — under pressure from residents and a lawsuit from an environmental group — committed to removing all 23,000 remaining lead service lines in the city. Using borrowed and federal money, the city spent $190 million and completed the work in less than three years. The last lead pipe was removed in 2022.

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Even if this speed is not an option for Buffalo, the city still needs to move forward with this project as quickly as possible. And the city expects it will likely get help from the same federal program that is giving communities an unprecedented amount of money to address lead pipe problems, including $15 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Drinking water funds are awarded by the federal government to states, territories and tribes through a competitive process. New York State distributes funds to municipalities based on a rating system. If you fail, more points will be awarded. Last year, Buffalo, unlike Syracuse and Rochester, received no federal funding for lead service lines.

The city of Buffalo had already begun replacing lead pipes as part of its Replacing Old Lead Lines program, which responded to pipe breaks. As part of this “reactive” effort, more than 2,400 lead service lines were replaced.

Additionally, Buffalo's “proactive” capital program – which does not wait for lines to be cut before acting – has replaced more than 1,000 such lines. And yet, approximately 37,500 service lines still need to be replaced, at an estimated cost of $450 million.

This nearly half a billion dollars is a large gain, but one that the city government wanted to develop over a period of 25 years. Among its goals was to maintain work in the community by training young people to become licensed plumbers through apprenticeship programs, of which there are few people of color or women.

“We cannot shift this burden onto our residents” without at least benefiting them, said Oluwole A. McFoy, chairman of the Buffalo Water Board. Compressing the 25-year program into 10 years will be challenging while ensuring the community benefits from both its health and economic prospects.

So if the city gets federal money to fund new lines, it has to, pun intended, get the line out.

Buffalo faces a daunting task and has a tight schedule. However, the question remains as to how much the city – which fortunately has not suffered from inadequate corrosion protection – will receive from the urgently needed federal funds.

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