Patrick Semansky / AP
It has been 35 years since Congress amended the Safe Drinking Water Act to ban the use of pipes that do not contain lead in the country’s water supply systems. But for decades, lead pipes and lead paint continued to impact millions of people in their homes, schools and daycares, contaminating drinking water and producing toxic chemicals in the air.
On Thursday, the Biden administration announced plans to remove the pipes and lead paint within the next decade.
“There is no reason in the 21st century that people should still be exposed to this substance that poisoned people in the 18th century. There is no good reason,” Vice President Harris said during a speech at the AFL-CIO in Washington.
The White House estimates that between six and 10 million homes get their drinking water from lead pipes and that 24 million homes across the country have lead paint.
The presence of lead in drinking water and in the air has a particularly negative impact on children, who can experience developmental delays, brain and kidney damage and other serious health consequences. And surprisingly, half of all children under the age of six are exposed to lead in their homes.
Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
Lead exposure also tends to have a disproportionate impact on low-income communities and communities of color, making it an environmental justice issue, Harris said.
The White House’s plans to tackle lead pipes and paint fall under the bipartisan infrastructure plan, which President Biden enacted last month.
The administration said the action plan would extend to several agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In addition to the physical removal of lead pipes and paint, the EPA will also better regulate lead and copper testing requirements.
$ 15 billion has been set aside for the process, but is it enough?
Removing and replacing the country’s lead pipes was a promise Biden made during the primary election campaign. In its original infrastructure plan, however, the proposed funding for the project was $ 45 billion. After months of debate on Capitol Hill, the investment has fallen to $ 15 billion, which some say is not a sufficient financial commitment.
Michael Drysdale, an attorney who practices environmental law, points out that the process of removing lead pipes is an expensive endeavor.
“Removing and replacing pipes is very expensive and the needs are concentrated in the poorest communities,” he said in a statement. “Although the recently adopted infrastructure package provided $ 15 billion in funding for the removal of the lead pipes, an additional $ 30-45 billion is needed.”
Some have estimated that the price to be paid will exceed $ 60 billion.
But Ali Zaidi, deputy national climate adviser for the White House, said the administration still views the investment as a success.
“We are working very hard to make sure that we are inventive and creative in how we meet this challenge,” Zaidi told reporters. “It means making sure that we standardize contracts, that we use the best technology, we use data tools to help curve the cost curve. “
Zaidi noted that nearly $ 3 billion will be spent on replacing lead pipes as early as next year, and the administration will also draw on funds from the US bailout adopted earlier this year to remove lead pipes.
“The funds of the American rescue plan are already mobilized to come out of the pipes of the ground”, he declared. “These dollars will accelerate this effort.”
In Flint, the process of replacing the lead pipes is already underway
The city of Flint, Michigan, has already started replacing its lead pipes. It’s been seven years since it was first revealed that the people of Flint were consuming high levels of lead in their drinking water, but city officials were lying to them.
Since 2016, the city has inspected thousands of lead and galvanized pipes – and the process has been extremely complicated.
Besides the physical aspect of digging into the ground between gas pipes and tree roots, the data for lead, copper or mixed water pipes may not be clear.
“This is a major project,” said Harold Harrington, a plumber working to replace pipes at Flint, at NPR in May, “and each of them is different.”