It’s a costly problem and historically there has been little federal funding to address it. This leaves many cities with dangerous and aging pipes.
ST. LOUIS — In many cities, no one knows where the lead pipes are underground. This is important because lead pipes contaminate drinking water. After the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan officials accelerated efforts to locate their pipes, a first step toward elimination.
But other places move more slowly.
This means that as billions of dollars in new federal funds become available to address the problem, some places are better positioned than others to quickly apply for funds and start digging.
Those who wait risk being left behind.
“The problem right now is that we want to reduce the time that vulnerable people live with lead exposure,” said Eric Schwartz, co-CEO of BlueConduit, which uses computer modeling to help communities predict where their lead pipes.
In Iowa, for example, only a handful of cities have located their lead water pipes and so far only one – Dubuque – has applied for newly available federal funds to remove them. State officials have consistently expressed confidence that they will find their guidelines by the federal government’s 2024 deadline and that communities will have time to apply for funds.
Lead in the body can lower IQ, stunt development, and cause behavioral problems in children. Lead pipes can leak into drinking water. Removing them eliminates the threat.
There are millions of lead pipes in the ground, installed decades ago, that carry tap water to homes and businesses. They are concentrated in the Midwest and Northeast, but are present across much of the country. Scattered record keeping means many cities don’t know which of their water pipes are lead versus PVC or copper.
Some places like Madison and Green Bay, Wisconsin have managed to remove theirs. But it’s a costly problem and historically there has been little federal funding to address it.
“Lack of resources has been a huge problem,” said Radhika Fox, head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s water office.
President Joe Biden signed an infrastructure bill last year it ultimately provided a big boost, allocating $15 billion over five years to help communities with lead pipes. 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 submit an application, you won’t get the money,” said Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Local officials can start replacement work before they’ve completed a detailed inventory, but it’s helpful to have an estimate of where the lead pipes will go, said Eric Oswald, director of the drinking water division. from Michigan.
“We need to know that they have identified the main service lines before funding the removal process,” he said.
Lead pipes have been causing damage for decades. In recent years, residents of Newark, New Jersey, and Benton Harbor, Michigan, were forced to use bottled water for basic needs like cooking and drinking, after tests revealed high levels of lead. Flint, a majority-black community where officials initially denied lead problems existed, has focused national attention on the health crisis. Audience trust in tap water subsequently fellespecially in black and Hispanic communities.
Sri Vedachalam, director of water equity and climate resilience at Environmental Consulting & Technology Inc., said he hopes communities replace the pipes for the benefit of residents.
“But realistically, if it’s to avoid embarrassment, it’s still a win,” he said.
There are indications that embarrassment was a motivating factor. Michigan and New Jersey adopted severe measures to address lead in drinking water, including speeding up the mapping process, after minimizing high lead levels. But things are moving more slowly in some other states like Iowa and Missouri that haven’t had similar headline-grabbing crises.
Earlier in August, the EPA asked communities how to document their pipes. The money will flow based on each state’s needs, Fox said. Technical assistance is available and easier conditions for disadvantaged communities.
Water tests in Hamtramck, a town of nearly 30,000 people surrounded by Detroit, have periodically revealed worrying lead levels. The city assumes that most of its pipes are made of the problematic metal and work is underway to replace them.
“We went street after street,” said city manager Max Garbarino.
Pipe replacement is so sought after in Michigan that communities have requested more funds than will be available immediately.
The EPA distributed the first funds using a formula that does not take into account the number of lead pipes in each state. Thus, some states received significantly more money per lead pipe than others. The agency is working to fix this for years to come. Michigan hopes that if the states don’t spend their money, it will eventually come back to them.
BlueConduit’s Schwartz said officials should make sure not to skip drain inspections in poor neighborhoods, to make sure inventories are accurate. Alternatively, if there is better documentation in rich areas, they might receive replacement funding more quickly even if they don’t need it as much.
Dubuque, a city of about 58,000 people on the Mississippi River, wants more than $48 million to replace about 5,500 of its lead-containing pipes. Mapping work began years ago and previous officials made sure it was properly updated, anticipating that it would one day become a federal requirement. They were right.
Christopher Lester, director of the city’s water department, said those past efforts made it easier to apply for funds.
“We are fortunate that the inventory is developed. We don’t need to try to catch up,” Lester said.