Critics NYC bill takes wrong approach to lead pipe removal / Public News Service

A New York City bill is creating a vicious cycle for lead pipe removal. The so-called “Rotten Apple Bill” requires city property owners to remove lead pipes from their homes and threatens fines if they don't comply.

Up to 41% of water pipes contain or may contain lead.

Valerie Baron, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, welcomed the bill's intent but argued that there are better ways to address lead pipes. She said problems could arise if property owners organize pipe replacement work.

“You could, for example, rip up the road six, seven or eight times,” Baron said. “It's also confusing. It makes it difficult to implement the right health precautions and it's not cost-effective.”

Baron argued that an effective program requires a commitment to removing lead pipes, with the city doing the work at no cost to homeowners. The state has received funding from the bipartisan infrastructure bill to replace pipes. But she noted that if New York City shifts the responsibility to homeowners, they risk becoming ineligible for the big pot of money. State money has been set aside for this purpose, but it doesn't match federal funds.

Other concerns include the health hazards associated with removing lead pipes. Disrupting a lead pipe can cause small particles of lead to be dislodged and further contaminate the environment. Baron noted that creating a centralized program will ensure that a home's pipes are properly flushed and water filtered for six months. She stressed that the law's penalties could target the wrong people.

“If you don't get the pipe removed, you'll be fined $1,000,” Baron said. “We're concerned that some landlords will view this penalty as a cost of doing business, or that other families who couldn't afford to have the pipe replaced won't be able to afford the $1,000 either.”

The move comes as the Environmental Protection Agency is finalizing a new lead and copper regulation that is expected to give municipalities nationwide 10 years to replace all existing lead pipes. There are some exceptions. The EPA's new regulation could take effect in 2027.

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A Michigan nonprofit organization working to keep oil out of the Great Lakes is celebrating a major victory.

A federal appeals court has ruled that Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel's 2019 lawsuit against Canadian oil company Enbridge should be returned to state court.

Nessel's lawsuit seeks to shut down part of the Line 5 oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac due to fears of a possible oil spill.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that Enbridge had transferred the case from state court to federal court more than two years after the deadline for changing jurisdiction had expired.

Sean McBrearty, campaign coordinator for the group Oil and Water Don't Mix and Michigan director of Clean Water Action, said the appeals court ruling was justified because Nessel sued Enbridge based on the state public trust doctrine and the state Environmental Policy Act.

“The doctrine essentially states that the waters and floodplains of the state are the property of the people,” McBrearty said, “and that it is the duty of the state government to take care of them in perpetuity.”

Enbridge issued a statement in response saying, in part, that it was disappointed with the appeals court's decision and believed that “the case should remain in federal court given the clear and substantial questions of federal law raised by the Attorney General's complaint.”

Line 5 transports petroleum products from northwest Wisconsin through Michigan to Ontario, passing through the Straits of Mackinac.

McBrearty stressed that his organization's concerns about the pipeline and the potential for a catastrophic oil spill are based on science.

“We have a 71-year-old pipeline that was designed to last 50 years,” McBrearty said. “It runs every day through what scientists say is the most dangerous place in the Great Lakes for an oil spill.”

Enbridge claims that Line 5's safety is regulated solely by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

The case is remanded to Michigan’s 30th District Court in Ingham County.

Disclosure: Oil and Water Don't Mix donates to our fund for climate change/air quality, environment, environmental justice and water reporting. If you would like to support news in the public interest, click here.

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Recent reports are calling on Virginia and the U.S. to invest in water infrastructure. The U.S. Water Alliance's Bridging the Gap report examines two scenarios: continuing investments under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and returning funding to previous levels.

Virginia received a grade of C+ in the American Society of Civil Engineers' most recent infrastructure report card.

Christy Harowski, Value of Water campaign director at the U.S. Water Alliance, said returning to previous spending levels is not a viable option.

“We will have a $2.6 trillion investment gap in the water sector in 2043, which is a huge number. But if we continue to invest at IIJA levels over the same period, that gap would narrow by $125 billion,” Harowski said.

This is based on the Environmental Protection Agency's needs survey, which shows that the investment gap in national water infrastructure is $91 billion and will only continue to grow if the bill level is not maintained. She noted that these continued investments at IIJA rates have long-term impacts, such as preserving 200,000 jobs and saving households nearly $7,000 over 20 years.

A challenge with investing in water infrastructure for most is that it becomes out of sight and out of mind. Since much of the water infrastructure is funded by local and state funds, being proactive at the federal level means extending the IIJA beyond its 2026 expiration. Harowski said that disinvestment in the past has compromised existing infrastructure.

“The majority of America's water infrastructure is about 100 years old,” she said. “In some places it's even older. It's well beyond its useful life and as a result, more and more water mains are breaking, more and more pipes are leaking and the need to repair and replace much of that infrastructure far exceeds the investment in it.”

Investments in water infrastructure remain a key issue for voters. The Value of Water Index poll shows there is strong bipartisan support for maintaining IIJA investments. Most voters surveyed would pay modest rate increases to support local utility projects that improve water supplies and community health.

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There is a disagreement between federal law and Illinois state law regarding ownership, access, and use of the state's streams, lakes, and rivers, and the legislature has failed to pass a measure addressing the issue.

Some of the waterways are governed by Illinois state law, which allows public access. Federal law allows private ownership of most of the state's waterways.

House Bill 4708 – which received little attention in the 2024 legislative session – proposes that all lakes, rivers and streams that can serve commercial or recreational activities should be freely accessible.

The Illinois Environmental Council wants to see the bill passed. Eliot Clay, the council's director of land use programs, said he is optimistic that lawmakers will talk about the bill in the future.

“We have a long way to go to get this passed,” Clay said. “We made it to the legislature last year and we definitely plan to bring it back to the table. Especially during the next legislative session in 2025. There was pretty strong opposition to this bill, especially from the agricultural community.”

There is a group of people who believe that if a river flows through someone's property, the river is their property. Clay noted that previous court cases have ruled otherwise.

According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the state's river and stream network stretches nearly 88,000 miles.

Currently, about 2% of Illinois' surface waters are navigable for boating, fishing and swimming.

Mila Marshall, clean water advocate with the Illinois Sierra Club, said HB 4708 would increase the number of people working to keep waterways clean and healthy.

“It makes it more accessible and makes it clearer that the water is available to everyone,” Marshall said. “At the same time, it recognizes that the property owners' private lands can still be protected and they own the riverbed, so the water that flows through it is free and available to the public.”

Marshall, who has a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology, said the state of Illinois' strategy to reduce nutrient loss, launched in 2015, is key to cleaner lakes, streams and rivers.

The program describes best practices for improving water quality by reducing nitrogen and phosphorus levels.

Disclosure: The Sierra Club donates to our fund for coverage of climate change/air quality, energy policy, the environment, and environmental justice. If you would like to help us support news in the public interest, click here.

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