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President Biden’s plan to replace lead pipes faces funding challenge

Updated: Sep. 3, 2021 at 9:00 AM EDT
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - President Biden has pledged to replace every lead pipe in the country, but some experts warn the funding allocated in the bipartisan infrastructure bill isn’t enough to get the job done.

Biden’s American Jobs Plan initially allocated $45 billion to get lead pipes out of the country’s water systems, but the bipartisan infrastructure bill only offers a third of that—$15 billion.

A leading industry group, the American Water Works Association, estimates the project could cost $60 billion or more.

“Ultimately, we’re a little concerned that there’s going to be families left behind,” said Tom Neltner, an expert on lead and chemicals policy director for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Neltner was disappointed by the allocation the bill, in part, because half of the money will go to municipalities as loans they need to repay.

“It means that we’re gonna have to supplement the money—we’re gonna need to get the full funding up to $45 billion somehow,” he said.

Distributing funds in the form of loans ultimately puts the burden on the communities, and residents could see their water rates go up as a result.

“That’s wrong,” said Richard Diaz, chair of Milwaukee’s Coalition on Lead Emergency. “We need grant dollars.”

Still, the infrastructure bill is a “glimmer of hope” for Diaz. Milwaukee has more than 70,000 lead service lines, and at the current rate of replacement it will take decades to remove them all.

“The infrastructure of our water system is so old that lead could be leaching out at any different point, from this person’s house to that person’s house—you just don’t know,” Diaz said.

Milwaukee isn’t alone. At least 57% of counties in the US are served by water systems that have detected lead at some point in the last four years, according to EPA data.

Experts agree that there is no safe level of lead exposure. Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of lead poisoning, which can slow down their development and lead to learning and behavior problems.

Adults are at risk too—exposure to lead can take a toll on the heart and kidneys.

The EPA didn’t fully crack down on lead plumbing until the 1980s, so houses built before then are at the highest risk of having dangerous pipes made or soldered with lead. More than 80 percent of housing units fall into this category in some parts of the country, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, census data shows.

The EPA estimates that the U.S. still has between between 6 million and 10 million lead service lines, the underground pipes that connect homes to municipal water systems.

With an average cost of $4,700 to replace leach line, the current allocation in the bipartisan infrastructure bill wouldn’t come close to replacing even the EPA’s low-bar estimate.

Biden’s national climate advisor, Gina McCarthy, acknowledged a possible need for more funding, but she is optimistic about what municipalities can do with the $15 billion Congress will make available.

“We certainly were hoping for the largest amount of money we could get, but we recognize that what we’re receiving is going to get us a long way to that finish line, and if we’re clever, it’ll get us over the finish line,” she said.

McCarthy couldn’t give an exact timeline for the plumbing overhaul, but she said the administration would work with local governments to get it done quickly. While the Senate passed its version of the massive infrastructure package last week, the funding won’t go out until the House votes on it.

“These problems have been with us for, in some cases, over a century,” McCarthy said. “And we need to recognize that we can’t take a century to fix it.”

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