Elena Bautista didn’t pay much attention to the work crews that rolled down her street last year. They planned to remove water pipes made of lead, a toxin that can permanently damage children’s brains.
But they skipped the tenement building where Bautista and her two kids lived.
They dug up pipes only at the homes of those who paid or took out loans for thousands of dollars, as well as under the public streets. Worse, the removal work risked causing a significant spike of toxic water for weeks, maybe months, in the homes of those unable to pay for it.
Bautista lives in Providence, Rhode Island, a city with a history of severe lead problems, yet this practice is happening all over the US. Pipes made of lead, a material not safe in any amount, supply tap water to millions of homes such as Bautista’s. To completely halt contamination, there is no other option but to rip the lead pipes out of the ground and change them for a different material.
Elena and daughter Kaihlani Bautista outside of the old residence with lead pipes
But according to a Guardian investigation, some US cities are now essentially telling residents: pay up for the replacement or get more poison in your water.
America’s massive lead problem came into focus in 2015, when thousands of mostly Black residents in the city of Flint, Michigan, were found to have been poisoned by lead in their drinking water. Since then it has become clear that this problem is systemic and widespread, and that many other Americans lack access to a fundamental right: water that is reliably safe and clean.
Joe Biden has promised to rid the nation’s drinking water of lead contamination. Yet a massive 2021 infrastructure spending package approved by Congress contained only enough federal funding to replace a third of the country’s lead lines – leaving cities to figure the rest out for themselves.
Studies have found that Black and brown children are far more likely to have elevated levels of lead in their blood and to live in older homes with lead lines, yet it tends to be wealthier white residents who take advantage of local programs that offer property owners loans to replace lead pipes.
The issue of low-income residents being left out of lead line replacements – or even getting more lead because of partial fixes – has become a flashpoint that environmental groups, the EPA and local governments like Providence are now trying to address. But the actions are a drop in the bucket of a massive, nationwide problem.
“All families deserve lead-free drinking water, regardless of race, class, or any other factor,” said Laura Brion, director of Rhode Island’s Childhood Lead Action Project (Clap). It has drafted a civil rights complaint with four other public advocacy groups – a complaint now under investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency – charging that the Providence water department’s pay-for-replacement strategy “amounts to obvious race and class discrimination and needs to stop”.
“Not only is it not solving the problem, in some cases, it’s making it actively worse,” said Devra Levy, an organizer with Clap.
In Washington Park, a mostly Latino working-class area of Providence with fruit stalls and Dominican bodegas, Bautista, 23, said she was outraged that many renters like herself and low-income homeowners missed out.
Letters from the water department warned that last year’s construction might cause a temporary surge in residents’ lead levels – but Bautista says she didn’t receive it. “I wasn’t notified. I didn’t even know that there was lead piping.” She never took the actions that could have limited her kids’ exposure, such as using special filtration pitchers that were offered by the city.
Michael Bautista, age five.
Bautista had already been planning to move out of her apartment, but she made it a priority to find a new place without lead. “I just know lead is very dangerous, just like carbon monoxide,” she said.
Solving part of the problem only makes it worse
In the 19th century, pipes made of malleable and durable lead helped drive the explosive growth of American cities. Sentiments started to shift later in the century, as medical journals documented occasional epidemics of severe, waterborne lead poisoning, causing such symptoms as blue-lined gums, incapacitation and even death.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said there are no safe levels of lead, which is now recognized as a neurotoxin that can cause lower IQ, developmental delays and behavioral problems in children, as well as kidney and cardiovascular problems in adults.
But there are still up to 12.8m houses and apartment buildings connected to the water system with lead lines in the US, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Homeowners must often pay to replace lead pipes on their property.
These lead service lines, as they are known, fork off from the water main, which follows the course of the street, like branches from a tree trunk, and supply individual buildings. In doing so, these lines pass from public property on to private property. Cities that are undertaking lead replacement programs often ask homeowners to pay to replace the portions under their private property. If owners don’t pay, some cities essentially cut the lines in half, removing the city-owned portions of the lead lines but leaving the lines on private property intact.
One problem, for those in buildings with no replacements, is that they still have lead pipes. Another is that disrupting or cutting the old pipes can cause more lead to break loose and flow into the residents’ water.
In 2011, the EPA’s science advisory board said the tactic is “frequently associated with short-term elevated drinking water lead levels for some period of time after replacement, suggesting the potential for harm, rather than benefit during that time period”.
The American Water Works Association, an industry group for water utilities, recommends against doing partial replacements of lead pipes. “You’re getting rid of some lead, but in the process, you’re disturbing the system and may be stirring up more lead than if you had just left the whole thing alone,” said Paul Olson, senior manager of standards for the group, in a 2017 trade article.
A view of the water main work in Washington Park. There are temporary pipes running alongside most of the sidewalks.
Studies have found that partial lead service line replacements can unleash “erratic spikes” of lead into drinking water. One study by Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie University found partial replacements doubled the amount of lead in drinking water in the short term. Even after six months, twice as many homes as before the partials were done had readings above the EPA’s limit for lead in water.
All told, “the vast majority of the 11,000+ water utilities in the US engage in this practice” of partially replacing lead pipes, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. Recent examples confirmed by the Guardian stretch from Memphis, Tennessee, to Dayton, Ohio, and Rochester, New York.
‘They want to dump responsibility on the homeowner’
The letters announcing that pipes would be removed as part of a water system rehabilitation job went out in Bautista’s neighborhood of Washington Park in spring 2021.
The neighborhood, originally constructed for Italian, Irish and Portuguese migrant workers in the late 1800s, is now home to many Caribbean, African and Latin American communities. At nearby Roger Williams Park a bust of Juan Pablo Duarte, a founding father of the Dominican Republic, stands near both a US and a Dominican flag.
Ahead of the construction work, the city urged customers to pay to replace the portion of the lines located on their private property. It offered to cap the cost at $4,500 and to provide residents a zero-interest loan, which they could re-pay at $37.50 a month for the next 10 years. It warned that not doing so put them at risk of exposure to more lead.
A bodega in the Washington Park neighborhood.
Bautista, a renter with two young children, wished her landlords had taken out the loan to remove the lead service lines. But she did not feel she had much negotiating power with them. “I’m too poor to worry about it,” she said. “I just need housing before we end up in the street.”
Even for homeowners, $4,500 “is a lot of money”, said Linda Perri, president of the Washington Park Neighborhood Association, who worried that households with kids would be the least likely to be able to pay to get clean water. “I don’t think it’s fair. I think the city should take care of it on a ‘need’ basis. If you have three kids and you make $45,000, you shouldn’t have to pay.”
Indeed, only 13 of the 263 property owners in Washington Park who were identified as having lead service lines last year signed up to receive a loan, according to public records obtained by the Guardian. In the end, 250 homes were left with lead pipes still connecting their buildings to the water system.
The people who have taken loans in Providence have overwhelmingly tended to be from richer areas. Of the 1,249 residents who have taken advantage of the loans, 638 were from a single zip code in a mostly white area in the east side of Providence, records show – four times more than any other zip code. That area includes parts of Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design, and some of the region’s most expensive housing.
It is a similar story nationally: a recent study of Washington DC’s early lead replacement programs found that when the water provider for the city asked residents to pay for replacement of the portions of pipes on their own property, 66% of homeowners in the wealthiest parts of the city took advantage of the program, compared with only 25% for areas with the lowest incomes.
Washington Park residents loading a truck with supplies to send to the Dominican Republic. Washington Park is a mostly Latino working-class neighborhood.
Ironically, in many cases, it was city codes that mandated lead in the first place, said Erik Olson of the NRDC.
“This is particularly unfair since in most places the city or the water utility required or approved the installation of the lead lines in the first place,” said Olson. “Now they want to dump the responsibility for correcting it on the homeowner.”
A number of states, including Michigan, Illinois, and New Jersey, have banned partial replacements. Yet a ban does not necessarily mean an end to lead. In Chicago, for instance, working-class residents who make above the low-income line are asked to take out loans to foot the costs. The price tag for a pipe fix there: $15,000 to $26,000.
“If I wanted I could finance it,” said homeowner Marcelina Pedraza, referring to a loan. She has confirmed there’s lead in her water, but found she makes too much in her job as an electrician to qualify for the city’s programs to pay for lead pipe replacements. “But I think it should be done across the board regardless of income.”
‘A lot of people don’t have options’
Providence Water says it hopes to correct the situation going forward.
It said it has taken steps to protect all its customers from lead in the pipes leaching into their drinking water. These include adding a chemical to the water to prevent corrosion from the pipes. It said that, thanks to these steps, the agency’s water quality has improved and, as of December, it was in compliance with the EPA’s required maximum lead levels.
But it has exceeded them in 14 of the previous 15 years – and the EPA standards themselves are considered by many scientists to be too lax. Providence is one of the largest water districts in the nation to exceed the EPA’s limits for lead in recent years, according to the NRDC.
A water pipe access point taped with a Black ‘X’ in front of Elena Bautista’s former residence.
For those affected by last year’s construction work, Providence Water offered free water filtration pitchers and urged residents to flush their pipes with cold water for 15 minutes before using it for the first seven days after construction. (There is no real scientific consensus on how long the lead increases caused by construction work on existing lead lines might last. Some studies have suggested it could be as long as six months.)
Meanwhile the water department is testing a program that will try to level the playing field for future fixes, so low-income residents can get the work done without taking on loans.
This spring, Providence Water offered grants for free replacements to residents in another 40-block section of Washington Park. So far, based on water department records seen by the Guardian, fewer than half of the nearly 700 property owners in the area with suspected lead lines have given permission for the water department to replace the pipes on their property. The department is doing outreach to get more signups.
“The intent is to provide free private-side lead service line replacements to residents living within disadvantaged areas,” said public affairs representative Christopher Hunter. “We hope to accelerate the pace of replacements.” But that would depend on obtaining federal infrastructure funds or grants.
This dovetails with federal efforts. In March, the EPA clarified that cities will not be able to use the $15bn of new infrastructure funds to do partial pipe replacements. But activists worry that cities can still use other funding sources to do these partials, and can still run programs asking homeowners to take out loans.
“We’d like to see it be required that, when utilities replace mains or disturb the lead pipes, they pay to replace the entire lead pipe instead of only part,” said Tom Neltner of the Environmental Defense Fund, which has lobbied the EPA to make sure that low-income residents aren’t left out of the benefits from the work. “When you force somebody to choose between a higher risk of lead in their drinking water and paying several thousand dollars to replace their pipes, a lot of people don’t have options.”
A Rhode Island state bill requiring full replacements of everyone’s lead pipes passed overwhelmingly in the senate, but died in the house in late June.
Even in the neighborhood where the city is offering free replacements, residents aren’t always getting the message to sign up.
Monica Huertas, a homeowner in this section of the neighborhood, already has one child of her four with high levels of lead in his blood, and she worries about whether it will cause learning difficulties. The city suspects she has lead pipes.
The Huertas family at Columbia Park in the Washington Park neighborhood.
Yet she missed the meeting for this year’s grant program, which she said was impossible for her to attend because it didn’t offer childcare. Now she said she isn’t sure if the deadline has passed, and she hasn’t been able to follow up on it.
“We’re just dealing with so many other things in our community,” said Huertas, a social worker, who runs a neighborhood environmental group. “It’s the water, it’s the soil, it’s the jobs, it’s the color of your skin … Our community’s overburdened and we’re all overworked and underpaid.”
For now, Huertas says she buys bottled water and is teaching her children never to drink from the faucets.
“Water is supposed to be a human right,” she said. “But I’m getting this disgusting, lead-infested water.”
Eric Lutz contributed to this story.