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Thoughts From Engineers: The Shadow Cast by Lead Pipes

Chris Maeder on February 4, 2021 - in Articles, Column

On the eve of the New Year, amidst a pandemic and presidential transitionthe final revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) were published on Dec. 20, 2020. The new LCR modifies and updates parts of a law that was first passed in 1988. At that time, spurred by Safe Drinking Water Act mandates, hazards to public health from lead service lines (LSLs) were officially recognized. Widely used in everything from plumbing fixtures to welding solder, forces finally mobilized to end historically entrenched patterns of lead use in the nation’s water-delivery systems. Yet nearly 30 years later, the problem of lead in U.S. infrastructure remains painfully unresolved.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that more than 9 million LSLs are still in use around the country. Findings from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show that more than 500,000 children in the United States have elevated lead levels. Of the lines that remain, some have been treated with orthophosphate, which places a coating on the inside of LSLs, creating a barrier between the lead pipes and water. However, some experts consider this treatment only effective in limited circumstances and when lead pipes are relatively new. Some lines have been partially replaced. This is a patch-up solution considered problematic as studies have shown that lead levels actually increase in water samples following partial replacement. Time and again, testing and experience show the only real solution lies in excavation, removal and replacement of all aging and corroding public and private lines.

The Crux of the Matter: Triggers and Inventories

The new law requires use of more science-based testing methodologies and more-frequent testing of water quality at schools and daycare facilities. Water utilities need to inventory and make public all lead lines in service, a definite improvement over the previous rule that had no comparable mandate. Most problematic, however, are the actionable lead standards set by the EPA. Investigative and corrective action to fix contaminated systems via Corrosion Control Treatment is triggered at levels of 10 parts per billion (ppb). Action to replace LSLs is triggered at 15 ppb. Even at this point, for systems serving more than 3,300 people, only 3 percent of LSLs need to be fully replaced per year.

This is a complex rule, and I’ve only touched on a few of the rule’s many revisions. However, it’s interesting that EPA’s actionable lead criterion wasn’t closer to zero as EPA’s own website plainly declares: “There is no safe standard for lead.”

Several groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund claim that the final rule, as written, will not significantly eliminate the number of LSLs in use or significantly reduce the number of people exposed to lead. Although the revisions demand more of utilities, the law stops short of aggressively moving the LSL replacement process forward. Science-based protocols, more information to people affected and more-frequent testing of systems? Yes on all counts, but mandating that households be notified of elevated numbers within 24 hours or schools be informed of their options doesn’t drive real on-the-ground change in affected homes or communities.

Whole-scale replacement of lead service lines is one of the costliest projects a municipality can undertake. Funding from sources such as the Safe Drinking Water Act to Community Development Block Grants can help, but these programs fall short on their own. Municipalities to date have been forced to develop creative strategies to come up with necessary funding. In the communities where it has occurred, large-scale LSL replacement has been driven by a unique mix of local drive, diverse funding sources that include substantial financial assistance to low-income households, and rigorous follow-through.

Tackling Lead from the Ground Up

Madison, Wis., replaced all 8,000 LSLs with a combination of local, state and federal funds in an 11-year project that broke ground in 2001. A cost-sharing program was created to help homeowners foot a portion of the bill with revenues from a user charge associated with use of the utility’s water tanks for cellular reception. The City of Green Bay, Wis., used federal and state funding in addition to a $300,000 Lambeau Field Stadium tax to fund pipe replacement. The federal Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, Community Development Block Grants and other funding sources have furnished needed monies to smaller communities. Political will, funding that draws on a community’s relative wealth and diverse funding sources are what set apart the LSL success stories from the communities that continue to languish with failing systems.

Vast populations of largely low-income families in metropolitan areas such as Washington, D.C., Milwaukee and Chicago are unlikely to benefit from existing programs. The solution remains complex for these communities. Chicago’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot estimates the city has roughly 393,000 LSLs still in use. Her plan draws on three different replacement programs, but funding to cover the costs of this massive undertaking doesn’t yet exist. One major obstacle is the requirement that homeowners must own and reside in the home to be eligible for assistance. This criterion puts low-income renters in large urban areas at a disadvantage and contributes to a chronic lead problem in the nation’s inner cities.

Biden’s Build Back Better Program: Infrastructure Meets Environmental Justice

Biden’s Clean Energy Agenda unabashedly emphasizes that modernization of the nation’s infrastructure is key to revitalizing the nation’s workforce and laying the foundation for growth and a clean-energy economy. Biden’s plan to create an interagency task force charged with eradicating “legacy pollution—especially in communities of color, rural and urban low-income communities” as well as to provide “funds for replacing and remediating lead service lines” is ambitious and far-reaching. I can’t recall any administration in recent history pledging to invest 40 percent to upgrade infrastructure and address the needs of low-income populations.

Roughly 30 years after the LCL went into effect, it’s clearer than ever that the health effects of lead are irreversibly damaging, particularly to young brains and bodies. The Centers for Disease Control reduced standards for high-lead blood levels by half in 2012. Advancing and building infrastructure with a clean energy focus is important, but more so is a system of water delivery that doesn’t harm its most vulnerable citizens. Let’s hope Biden’s administration can deliver on the vision it has articulated, or at least that it can work earnestly in partnership and in good faith with the communities most at risk.

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About Chris Maeder

Chris Maeder, P.E., M.S., CFM, is engineering director at CivilGEO Inc.; email: [email protected].

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