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Thoughts From Engineers: The Fight to Get the Lead Out

Chris Maeder on June 5, 2023 - in Articles, Column

No issue captures the failings of our nation’s drinking-water infrastructure quite like the chronic and widespread problem of lead service lines (LSLs). Starkly highlighting racial disparities in the United States, LSLs can be found predominantly in poorer communities of color, all of whom are literally and figuratively on the wrong side of the pipes.

We’ve long recognized lead’s toxic character—its ability to stunt mental and physical development and snuff out individual potential amongst the country’s most vulnerable citizens—but by some accounts we still have up to 10 million LSLs in use throughout the country. And yet, despite decades of little-to-no real progress, there’s good reason to believe the country is embarking on a new chapter to remove these lines for good. It’s more than just the recent infusion of capital made possible by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Build Back Better Act and other sources. Several recent developments give us reason to be optimistic this time around.

Mobilizing Expertise, Resources … and Cash

For starters, we can draw on the leadership and drive of cities that have defied the odds to make astounding progress within a short period of time. These cities have discovered creative sources of funding, recharged local labor markets, and passed ordinances and laws configured to do what previously seemed impossible. A nod to innovative high-tech solutions also is in order. Software that uses machine learning to sort through relevant metrics to derive probable locations of LSLs in cases where accurate municipal records are absent is growing in use throughout the country. These tools are particularly important as deadlines to finalize federally mandated LSL inventories by 2024 draw near. Nonprofit foundations are poised to play a greater role as well and fill in gaps where the public and private sectors fall short.

What most distinguishes recent federal LSL removal initiatives is what appears to be a full-throttle, cross-agency focus on what has been called a core mission of the Biden administration. Like all largescale projects involving infrastructure, funding is critical. The massive Bipartisan Infrastructure Law makes $15 billion available for LSL replacements via Drinking Water State Revolving Funds (SRFs) and supplements this with $11.7 billion in additional eligible SRF funds. Multiple federal agencies have received directives to focus on lead removal, particularly in historically undermined neighborhoods, and to redirect resources, funding and technical assistance accordingly.

Several states, multiple agencies, water utilities, foundations, professional organizations and tech companies have committed to take part in the Biden-Harris “Get the Lead Out Partnership” (bit.ly/WhiteHouseLeadPipes). The Partnership is integral to the Biden administration’s “Lead Service Line Replacement Accelerators” program, an initiative launched in January 2023. The “accelerators” are designed to mobilize the aforementioned players in the Partnership to use all available resources, expertise, experience and funding to fast-track LSL removal in regions of the country where the problem is most acute. The Biden administration has pledged to achieve 100-percent removal of LSLs within 10 years. The city of Newark, N.J., a key member of the Partnership and national leader for speedy LSL removal, did it in three years.

Newark Beats the Odds

Any worthy effort needs at least one inspiring success story to propel the momentum forward, and Newark fills that need. A few key points are behind the city’s success (bit.ly/NewarkLeadPipes) in eliminating 100 percent of LSLs in record time. In late 2019, Newark passed an ordinance that mandated citywide LSL replacement, but also granted right-of-entry by public agents to private property. This meant rental properties—even with absentee or uncooperative landlords—could still benefit from the program. In a city where roughly a quarter of residents don’t own their homes, this ordinance language was a game-changer.

The city also financed a large portion of the work through a $120 million municipal bond made possible by New Jersey’s Essex County. Federal funding in the form of SRFs made up the balance, all of which ensured LSL replacements were free of cost to residents. Local labor benefited from apprenticeship programs. When the workforce was trained, a competitive bidding process for short-term contracts kept the work lucrative and steady. Between 2019 and 2023, Newark replaced some 23,000 pipes, which was a historic triumph. Equally inspiring stories of grit and community resolve can be found in Madison, Wis., and Green Bay, Wis.

Leveraging Technology and Other Resources

Most lead lines have been in use for decades, which means accurate records identifying their location don’t always exist. BlueConduit is one of several private companies that committed to the Partnership and is active in approximately 31 U.S. cities, of which New Orleans is the latest.

BlueConduit technology leverages machine learning and data science to identify likely locations for lead pipes within municipal boundaries. The company’s analytics are used to generate user-friendly interactive maps, which help to build trust and facilitate public engagement, and have proven to be 80-percent accurate in their ability to pinpoint LSL locations. The company has pledged to use its analytics (bit.ly/BlueConduitTech) to generate a “first-ever national LSL inventory” that will be available as an open-sourced map by 2023. Several other companies have developed technologies for different phases of the LSL replacement process—120Water is one example—and their work is ramping up throughout the country.

A number of foundations have been integral to the Partnership’s work, and these continue to be key in terms of providing flexible solutions and funding where public funds fall short or partner efforts stall. The Gates Family Foundation, Kresge Foundation and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation represent some of the participating organizations.

It’s possible that the LSL replacement work presently underway across the country will falter and history will repeat itself, but I seriously doubt it. Too many positive factors are moving this effort forward—from successful case studies to partners that have committed to the fight to historic levels of funding that are available specifically to get this important work done. In the end, a simple but relentless drive to correct an injustice that has remained unresolved for far too long will pull us through. 


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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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