Tom Neltner, Chemical Policy Director and Lindsay McCormick, Program manager
Dr. Karen Baehler and her team at the American University’s Center for Environmental Policy, with assistance from EDF, recently published a Peer Review Case Study Highlighting the environmental justice issues that arise when water utilities oblige property owners to pay when replacing Lead Service Lines (LSLs) that connect homes to the underground water line. Our experience shows that the vast majority of the 11,000+ water utilities in the United States use this practice. Based on the results, these utilities need to rethink their programs as they target more than 9 million LSLs nationwide.
The study found that Washington, DC residents in low-income neighborhoods were significantly less likely to pay for a full LSL replacement between 2009 and 2018 than those in more affluent neighborhoods, and therefore had an increased risk of lead exposure damage from a partial LSL replacement.
The practice of requiring customers to pay for a full LSL replacement also raises civil rights concerns in cities like Washington, DC, which have histories of racial segregation. Redlining, and underinvestment in neighborhoods composed mostly of colored people. If a utility company that follows this practice also receives federal funding such as state Revolving Loan Funds (SRFs), it may be in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While Washington, DC largely dissolved the problem in 2019 of banning partial replacement and combating “bygone fragments” that remain in the ground replicates this scenario across the country.
The problem of partial LSL replacement
The following illustration shows the difference between a full and partial LSL replacement.
In order to maintain their infrastructure, utilities regularly replace outdated drinking water pipes. The problems arise when the water pipes are connected to LSLs because the work interferes with these lead pipes.
A complete LSL replacement significantly reduces the risk of lead contamination in a customer’s drinking water in the long term. A partial LSL replacement – which leaves the lead pipes on private land – however, leads to short-term, much higher and longer-lasting lead peak peaks and does not reliably reduce the risk of lead exposure in the long term.
In 2011 the EPAs became Scientific Advisory Board found that in “water distribution systems optimized for corrosion protection full” [LSL replacements] He has[ve] has been shown to be a generally effective way to achieve long-term reductions in drinking water [lead] Levels. “The Scientific Advisory Board also stated:”[partial LSL replacements] have not proven to be reliably effective in reducing drinking water [lead] Levels. “
As a result, customers are faced with a great choice: accept the risk of increased lead exposure from a partial replacement, or potentially pay thousands of dollars to ensure that the LSL is fully replaced.
When customers cannot or do not want to pay, utility companies usually perform a partial LSL replacement, upgrading the portion of the pipe that runs from the water pipe to the curb (usually near the property line), and leaving the connecting pipe on Spot the curb to the house.
In essence, not only does partial LSL replacement increase the risk of lead contamination in home drinking water, threatening children’s brain development and putting adults at greater risk for heart disease and other harm, it also leaves the job half done in the future at a higher overall cost .
Environmental justice issues when utilities force customers to choose
The study by Dr. Baehler and her team show how the practice of partial replacement can lead to a major equity problem with significant health implications for low-income households.
Using Washington, DC as a case study, the researchers evaluated data on more than 3,400 full and partial LSL replacements carried out in the country’s capital from 2009 to 2018. During these ten years, the local water company DC Water followed the common cost-sharing practice of replacing LSLs. The utility covered the cost of replacing LSLs on public land, but required customers to pay to replace LSLs on private land. The utility took measures to cut costs, but customers still had to pay a contractor and average of $ 2,000, with prices between $ 1,000 and $ 10,000.
According to the study, a neighborhood household income was a key predictor of the prevalence of full LSL replacement. Residents in higher-income neighborhoods in the city were significantly more likely to pay for full LSL replacement, while customers in lower-income neighborhoods were more likely to have partial LSL and the associated greater risks of lead exposure.
It is important that the study suggests that these inequality patterns “have political and program relevance well beyond the boundaries of a city”. The same environmental justice issues can arise across the country as many other water systems use the same key functions as those used by DC Water during the period studied.
Some have already stopped partial LSL replacement
End of 2019, Washington, DC approved an ordinance Ending partial replacement of LSLs and providing financial support to homeowners who have been partially replaced in the past.
Other Cities such as Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Philadelphia have also rejected the practice of partial LSL replacement, and conditions such as Illinois, Michigan, and New Jersey have recognized the risks of partial LSL replacement and banned the practice.
ONE new inflow of federal funds from the non-partisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act which was enacted in November 2021, should also benefit efforts to stop the partial LSL replacementS.. The money goes to SRFs and includes $ 15 billion specifically for LSL replacement programs. The challenge before us is to ensure that funds are used for the benefit of all residents.
The study’s conclusions appear to be common sense, but their statistically representative documentation in a peer-reviewed journal makes them more useful to policy makers. Given the evidence, utility companies that require low-income residents to pay for the replacement of LSLs on private property should seriously consider the environmental justice and civil rights implications. States that administer SRF should do the same. Like the EPA in theirs December 17th Federal Register note Regarding the lead and copper rule: “States and water systems that receive federal funding have a positive obligation to implement effective non-discrimination programs.”
It is time for utilities and states to take this commitment seriously.