Some cities might lag behind in replacing lead pipes



ST. LOUIS — In many cities nobody knows where the lead pipes are underground. This is important because lead pipes contaminate drinking water. After the Flint lead crisis, Michigan officials accelerated efforts to locate their pipes, a first step toward removal.

But other places are moving more slowly.

That means with billions of dollars of new federal funding available to address the problem, some places are in a better position than others to quickly apply for funds and start digging.

Those who wait run the risk of being left behind.

“The problem right now is that we want to shorten the time that vulnerable people with lead exposure live,” said Eric Schwartz, co-CEO of BlueConduit, which uses computer models to help communities predict where their lead pipes are .

In Iowa, for example, only a handful of cities have located their lead water lines, and so far only one — Dubuque — has asked for newly available federal funds to remove them. State officials remained confident that they will find their guidance by the federal government’s 2024 deadline, giving communities time to apply for funds.

Lead in the body can lower IQ, stunt development, and cause behavioral problems in children. Lead pipes can get into drinking water. If you remove them, the threat will be eliminated.

There are millions of lead pipes buried decades ago that carry tap water to homes and businesses. They are concentrated in the Midwest and Northeast but are present in much of the country. Scattershot records mean many cities don’t know which of their water pipes are made of lead, PVC or copper.

Some places like Madison and Green Bay, Wisconsin have managed to remove theirs. But it’s an expensive problem, and historically there has been little federal funding to address it.

“The lack of resources was a big problem,” said Radhika Fox, director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s water office.

President Joe Biden signed an infrastructure bill last year that eventually gave a big boost, allocating $15 billion over five years to support lead-piped communities. It’s not enough to solve the problem, but it will help.

Communities that avoid the issue or wait too long may not be eligible.

“If you don’t pull yourself together and don’t apply, you won’t get the money,” said Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Local officials can begin replacement work before completing a detailed inventory, but it helps to have an estimate of where lead pipe is located, said Michigan Potable Water Department director Eric Oswald.

“We need to know that they have identified the leading service lines before we fund the removal process,” he said.

Lead pipes have been bad for decades. In recent years, residents of Newark, New Jersey, and Benton Harbor, Michigan, have been forced to use bottled water for basic needs like cooking and drinking after tests revealed elevated levels of lead. Flint, a majority-black community where officials initially denied there were lead problems, focused national attention on the health crisis. Public confidence in tap water plummeted thereafter, particularly in black and Hispanic communities.

Sri Vedachalam, director of water justice and climate resilience at Environmental Consulting & Technology Inc., said he hopes communities will replace pipes for the benefit of residents.

“But realistically, when it comes to avoiding embarrassment, that’s still a win,” he said.

There is evidence that embarrassment was a motivator. Michigan and New Jersey passed strict measures to tackle lead in drinking water, including speeding up the mapping process, after downplaying high levels of lead. But things are moving more slowly in some other states, like Iowa and Missouri, which haven’t experienced similar headline-grabbing crises.

In early August, the EPA directed communities to document their pipes. The money will flow according to each state‘s needs, Fox said. There is technical support and also easier conditions for disadvantaged communities.

Water tests in Hamtramck, a city of nearly 30,000 people surrounded by Detroit, have regularly revealed worrying levels of lead. The city believes most of its pipes are made of the problem metal and is working to replace them.

“We built street after street,” said City Manager Max Garbarino.

Pipe replacement is so coveted in Michigan that communities have requested more funding than will be immediately available.

The EPA distributed early funding using a formula that doesn’t take into account the number of lead pipes in each state. So some states got far more money per lead pipe than others. The agency is working to correct this for years to come. Michigan is confident that if states don’t spend their money, eventually it will come to them.

BlueConduit’s Schwartz said officials should be careful not to skip pipe inspections in slums to ensure inventories are accurate. Otherwise, with better documentation in affluent areas, they may be able to get replacement funding quicker, even if they don’t need it as badly.

Dubuque, a city of about 58,000 on the Mississippi River, wants more than $48 million to replace about 5,500 of its plumbing pipes. Mapping work began years ago and previous officials made sure it was properly updated in anticipation that it would one day be a federal requirement. You were right.

Christopher Lester, chief of the city’s water board, said these previous efforts made applying for funds easy.

“We are fortunate that the stock is developed. We don’t have to try to catch up,” Lester said.

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