This story was updated at 2:44 p.m. EST.
A unique study provides new evidence that the widespread practice of removing only certain portions of lead supply lines disproportionately plagues low-income minority neighborhoods with drinking water contamination.
The findings fuel calls for EPA to ensure billions of infrastructure dollars distributed through federal revolving funds to utilities across the country are spent fairly and comply with long-standing federal civil rights laws.
“We believe the EPA needs to crack down and make sure states take a positive stance on the discrimination that can happen with this SRF money,” said Tom Neltner, a senior counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund.
It follows a peer-reviewed report published in the online open-source academic journal Sustainability that found residents who lived in low-income neighborhoods in Washington between 2009 and 2018 were less likely than their more affluent, white neighbors had to pay to replace full-lead service lines. A private resident at the time would have had to pay more than $2,000 to have that portion of their leading service line removed.
Digging up and replacing the aging water pipes that connect homes to massive water mains is critical because the pipes leach lead, a neurotoxin, into drinking water and can compromise children’s mental and behavioral development, as well as health effects in adults. The EPA estimates there may be as many as 10 million lead service lines in the United States, but public health advocates say the number is likely much higher.
Treating only portions of such old water lines has long been a concern because the practice can accelerate the release of lead from corroding lines or interfere with pipeline coatings that normally protect against leaching.
While the case study focuses only on Washington, the research has wide-ranging implications because the practice of utilities replacing only portions of main utility lines is widespread but poorly followed, said Karen Baehler, associate dean of faculty and visiting scholar at the School of Public Affairs at American University, who led the research. The study was funded with a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to the Environmental Defense Fund.
Baehler noted that only three states — Michigan, New Jersey, and Illinois — have banned the practice. “Three states have banned the practice,” she said. “Elsewhere, we think it could be up to 90 percent of utilities using them.”
The study is novel in how it arrived at its conclusions and what it offers to current policy discussions.
While there is a large body of literature on the science and the effects of partial line replacement, there appears to be no research addressing the impact of replacement patterns on equity using administrative data, Baehler said.
She hopes the Biden administration will consider the findings as it considers how to move forward on a new lead and copper rule and how infrastructure funds will flow out of the agency. It’s especially critical, she noted, because the EPA enacted a Trump-era lead and copper rule that doesn’t ban the practice.
When EPA Administrator Michael Regan issued the first tranche of infrastructure funds late last year — out of a total of $15 billion available in the package — he urged states to prioritize spending in underserved communities fraught with failing systems and pollution and have not received their fair share of federal water infrastructure funding. Regan also explained in his letter that EPA provides technical assistance to help disadvantaged communities overcome barriers to applying for loans and grants, but it remains up to local and state officials to ensure those communities apply (E&E News PM, December 2, 2021). ).
EDF’s Neltner said the case study provides further incentive to ban the practice in its new lead and copper rule, but also makes it even clearer that the agency must enforce long-standing civil rights laws that oblige every recipient of federal funds to ensure no discrimination when those dollars are spent.
Neltner pointed to a recent civil rights lawsuit filed by himself and other environmental and health advocates with the EPA against a local Rhode Island water utility, arguing that the utility’s practice of partially removing lead-contaminated service lines disproportionately increases the risk of lead exposure in drinking water for low-income people Colored (Greenwire, Jan. 7). Providence Water, which uses federal dollars in loans through revolving state funds, claims that it is dedicated to eliminating lead services, working with state and federal experts, and providing financial assistance to low-income residents.
But Neltner said the practice of removing partial lines was discriminatory and the EPA needed to step in, and he asked the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) last week to make the issue a priority.
Proponents say a provision in the Trump-era lead and copper rule is also discriminatory, called the customer-initiated provision, which allows residents to require a utility to replace a lead line if they can muster the money to do so the part to replace their own property. However, Neltner noted that utilities will not have to comply with the rule under the Safe Drinking Water Act for another three years, and he hopes the EPA will address the issue as part of its revisions.
“It’s a bit hard to say at this stage how far they want to go, but our point is that the Civil Rights Act 1964 already creates that obligation,” he said.
An EPA spokesman said in an email that the agency is aware of the practice of partial line replacement and that this is causing short-term increases in lead concentrations in drinking water and further expanding the health risks of lead from service lines due to a portion of the lines can lead line remains in service. The EPA said it “strongly discourages” water systems from engaging in this practice.
“Although the agency does not have an estimate of the number of lines partially carrying lead, we know that there is no safe level of lead exposure,” the spokesman said. “This is why President Biden has called for 100% removal of lead piping. EPA is committed to utilizing all regulatory and non-regulatory tools available to the agency and its federal partners to expedite the exchange of lead service lines.”
The EPA, he said, will consider lead service line replacement requirements as part of its rulemaking, noting that the agency has also determined that a number of potential non-regulatory actions are available to further address lead contamination in drinking water to reduce.
“Pretty big gap”
Baehler’s team focused on Washington because not only is it home to American University, but also because the local water utility’s lead removal program reflects typical programs used across the country.
At the time, the District of Columbia Water and Sanitation Department (DC Water), the local utility, took two approaches to removing lead-laden water lines.
In the first “customer-initiated” option, homeowners organized the replacement themselves or took the initiative to contact DC Water to dispatch a team for a full replacement. The second way involved the utility company’s offer to replace the full supply line while other planned work was being carried out on the street.
The researchers found that while the utility company did a good job replacing the pipes, replacing just portions of the lines also had negative, unintended consequences.
Using regression modeling and geocoding, researchers analyzed the 2010 census areas in Washington. Comparing a neighborhood with a median income of about $76,000 per year and the lowest median household income of about $15,000 per year, they found that replacing lead utilities entirely in the more affluent and less diverse neighborhoods would save more than 50 percent would increase.
“That means if you take the lowest-income census precinct and bring their income to that middle level, you might get 50 to 60 percent more full replacement in that census precinct,” Baehler said. “That’s a pretty big gap.”
Authors concluded that “The inequities found in this study raise serious questions about which populations, both in Washington, DC and possibly nationwide, have waited the longest to receive adequate environmental funding for the problem of lead risk in drinking water.” “
The study period ended in 2018, as did the practice of replacing sections of the route in the federal capital.
That’s because in 2019, the Washington City Council accepted and approved funding for a new approach to lead pipe replacement, the report says, and imposed a new system that requires the city to pay to provide more equitable access to full replacement to ensure lead lines.
Betsy Southerland, a former senior EPA water official now with the Environmental Protection Network, agreed with Neltner that the Trump-era regulation requires water systems to develop replacement programs no later than three years after the rule went into effect.
That includes developing a strategy for customers who can’t afford to replace their portion of the line – since the rule doesn’t require utilities to pay for private lines – and a strategy for prioritizing replacement.
For the upcoming fiscal year, she said, the EPA has $25 million in water infrastructure improvement funds for the Nation Act that could be used to replace private lines. Though the Build Back Better package faces a rocky future, it also includes up to $10 billion more that could be used to remove lead utilities, as well as tens of billions of dollars for public housing and government-subsidized housing.
“All of this means that the EPA should focus on raising funds to replace private lines when homeowners are unable to pay,” Southerland wrote in an email.