Civil rights complaint draws attention to the discriminatory impacts of common lead pipe replacement practice

Jennifer Ortega, Research Analyst, Environmental Health

Last Wednesday, the Rhode Island Childhood Lead Action Project (CLAP) led a coalition of groups filing a civil rights complaint with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) against the Providence Water Supply Board (Providence Water) under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The administrative complaint highlights the discriminatory effects that can arise if utilities require their customers to share in the cost of replacing the lead pipes that are fed into their homes. The complaint was made as part of CLAP’s larger RI lead-free water campaign, which calls for “an equitable, statewide plan for the full, free replacement of lead pipes for all Rhode Island residents.”

In the complaint, CLAP, South Providence Neighborhood Association, Direct Action for Rights and Equality, National Center for Healthy Housing, and EDF allege the water company is replacing Lead Service Lines (LSLs) – the lead pipes that run from the water main to the water meter in homes – affects Black, Latinx, and Native American residents differently in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the EPA’s Regulations.

Work on Providence Water’s aqueduct infrastructure results in a partial LSL replacement – only replacing the lead pipe from the water main to the curb stop – if the customer does not agree or cannot afford to replace the portion of the line privately owned. These partial LSL replacements increase the risk of lead in the drinking water of the residents. The EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board found in 2011 that partial replacement leads to higher concentrations of lead in the short term without the reliable long-term reduction in lead from a full replacement.

Providence Water replaces the part of the LSL on public land free of charge for customers. It does, however, require customers to pay to replace the portion of the LSL on private property, which can cost up to $ 4,500, as detailed in CLAP’s factsheet on the complaint. If homeowners or landlords cannot afford this or if they fail to pay, the utility carries out the partial LSL replacement, which exposes the residents to short-term harmful effects and ongoing risks from the remaining lead pipe.

Nobody who lives in a house connected to an LSL should be confronted with the higher levels of lead that result from a partial exchange while half of the lead pipe remains on private property. Instead, everyone should have a realistic option of having the lead pipe completely replaced. Unfortunately this is not the case. A recently published study by Dr. Karen Baehler of American University found that low-income residents are less likely than wealthy residents to pay for LSL replacements on private property, presumably for financial reasons.

The City of Providence has recognized that colored communities “have disproportionately low incomes, live in neighborhoods with the lowest home ownership rates, and face higher costs”. This is likely due to the history of underinvestment and redlining that continues to economically affect color communities in the neighborhoods. An American University researcher (who compiled the statistics in the aforementioned study) provided a demographic analysis for the complaint that showed the race-income correlation among residents in the Providence Water service area.

The analysis showed that low-income residents in the utility’s service area were more likely to be Black, Latinx, and Native Americans, while wealthier residents were more likely to be White. These results suggest that Black, Latin American, and Native American residents in Providence are generally less able than white residents to pay for a full LSL replacement, the complaint said.

The evidence presented in the complaint also describes how tenants in particular suffer from the consequences of Providence Water’s practices as the critical public health decision to completely replace an LSL is left to their landlords. Landlords can choose not to pay the portion of the LSL replacement – by offering their tenants no choice at all or ignoring their wishes. In the utility’s service area, 88% of Native American residents, 69% of Latinx residents, and 64% of black residents who are “householders” rent their homes, adding to the disproportionate impact on people of color.

The appeal calls on the EPA to investigate the issue and direct Providence Water to:

  • Carrying out a full LSL replacement for all residents at no cost to customers;
  • Get community input to find the most effective way to conduct public relations and education that prioritizes Black, Latin American, and Native American residents; and
  • Make sure changes resulting from the complaint do not have unintended consequences for Black, Latinx, and Native American residents.

On the same day the complaint was filed, Tom Neltner, Senior Director of Safer Chemicals at EDF, provided the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) with comments on the environmental justice impact of LSL replacement practices by utility companies included in Dr complaint . He encouraged NEJAC to monitor developments related to the study and the complaint, and encouraged the EPA to provide guidelines to administrators of government revolving loan fund programs outlining their obligations to proactively comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to ensure in relation to LSLs. He also recommended that on projects disrupting drinking water lines, the EPA should then review compliance with the state and utility companies as they often result in partial LSL replacement.

The complaint was created from a template developed by the Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School in 2021. The clinic and EDF may be available to advise and assist other environmental justice organizations interested in assessing potential civil rights violations related to partial LSL replacement practices.

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