Watchdog: EPA’s lead pipe fix sent about $3 billion to states based on unverified data | WDHN

ST. LOUIS (AP) — The Environmental Protection Agency distributed about $3 billion to states last year to replace harmful lead pipes, according to a memo from an agency inspector general, based on unconfirmed data, likely meaning some states received too much money and others received too little.

Investigators found that two states had submitted inaccurate data, Wednesday's memo said. The states were not named. The EPA has since made changes, but the inspector general said the agency could do more.

“Inadequate internal controls to verify data resulted in quotas that did not meet individual states’ needs, and if left unaddressed, the agency risks using unreliable data for future infrastructure spending,” said EPA Inspector General Sean W.O 'Donnell.

The agency said it disagreed with several aspects of the inspector general's memo and said its estimate of lead pipes was the best available and the correct way to allocate funds to states. The agency also said it has safeguards in place to ensure the money is spent correctly.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill provided $15 billion over five years to find and replace lead pipes. These pipes are particularly common in the Midwest and Northeast and are typically found in older homes. Lead can lower children's IQ levels and stunt their development. It is also associated with higher blood pressure in adults.

To distribute funds based on the number of lead pipes in states, the EPA requested estimates from states and utilities. Then, in April 2023, the agency announced the results — there are about 9.2 million lead pipes nationwide — and adjusted its funding formula.

Tom Neltner, national director of Unleaded Kids, said two states — Texas and Florida — had far higher totals than expected in those estimates. Ultimately, Florida received the most funding of any state in 2023: $254.8 million based on an initial estimate of nearly 1.2 million lead pipes.

“Providing excessive information takes money away from states that really need it,” he said.

Texas and Florida did not immediately respond to messages left with their governors' offices and the Florida Department of Environmental Quality.

The Biden administration has prioritized providing clean drinking water for all. Earlier this year, the EPA proposed a rule that would require most cities and towns to replace all of their lead pipes within a decade. Limit values ​​for so-called “forever chemicals” in drinking water have also been set.

Republicans have repeatedly attacked the Biden administration's spending on climate and environmental priorities as a handout to left-wing causes without sufficient accountability.

The EPA's Office of Inspector General is in the process of reviewing federal funding for lead pipe replacements and has previously been in contact with agency officials about some concerns. The inspector general expects to release a final report in the fall highlighting the inaccuracies in each state.

The inspector general found that a water utility in one state submitted poor information to the agency and “adjustments made by another state” were also submitted.

The agency said it had “done a tremendous amount of quality assurance work,” contradicting the inspector general's claims that its efforts were inadequate. Federal officials reviewed local lead pipe estimates and discarded some they found inadequate.

Even before the inspector general's memo was released, some states had complained to the EPA that its funding decisions were not fair.

“We have serious concerns about the quality of the data on which the EPA relied,” said a February letter from Massachusetts officials to the EPA.

In early May, the EPA adjusted its 2024 funding allocation based on some new information it received from utilities. President Biden announced the funding during a stop in Wilmington, North Carolina. Funding for Texas declined the most; its $146.2 million was reduced by about $117.6 million. Florida saw the second largest decline, $26.1 million. Eight other states or territories saw smaller reductions.

Nineteen states received more money, led by Minnesota with $48.7 million more and New Jersey with $40.1 million more.

Neltner said the EPA deserves credit for gathering additional information to improve the accuracy of funding awarded.

The $15 billion is just a fraction of the total amount needed to replace all of the country's lead pipes. Erik Olson, a health and food expert with the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, said inflated estimates by some states could steer a lot of money in the wrong direction.

“I’ll just say it’s suspicious,” he said.

Olson said it is the responsibility of water utilities and states to provide accurate information. But the EPA also deserves some blame “for not verifying some of these numbers,” he said.

When the agency began distributing money, some states like Michigan had a long list of projects they wanted to fund. Others aren't quite there yet and have to spend the money on inventory to find their lead pipes. A small number of states even rejected the funding in the first year it was offered.

When states don't spend all of their money, it is reallocated to states that need it more.

Neltner worries that states that receive more money than they need will spend it on expensive supplies of lead pipes rather than replacement efforts.

John Rumpler, clean water director at the environmental group Environment America, said the important question is how well states use the money they receive to replace lead pipes.

“Even if all the money were distributed perfectly,” he said. “It wouldn’t remove all the lead pipes.”

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Associated Press data journalist Mary Katherine Wildeman reported from Hartford, Connecticut.

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The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of water and environmental policy. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all of AP's environmental coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/climate-and-environment

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