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The White House launches a new push to help states remove lead pipes that carry drinking water

WASHINGTON – The White House on Friday announced plans to accelerate the use of infrastructure bill funds to replace lead pipes in underserved communities, with a focus on Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin starting this ‘year.

The four states, each led by Democratic governors, will be part of what is called the Lead Service Replacement Accelerators program in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Labor.

The administration characterized it as a way to “promote progress” in using Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funding dedicated to the removal and replacement of plumbing lines that carry clean water to homes and schools. Exposure to lead in drinking water, particularly in children or pregnant women, can cause permanent neurological damage.

“Our utility line replacement accelerators demonstrate our commitment to ensuring that every community has access to safe, clean drinking water,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement Friday.

“Leveraging the historic investment made possible by the bipartisan infrastructure bill, we are one step closer to achieving President Biden’s vision of 100 percent lead-free water systems for all.”

Help for communities

The new initiative is intended to bring “hands-on support” and technical assistance from EPA to guide communities through the process of removing the main service line. Such assistance could include help with completing federal grant and loan applications or expertise in finding labor and contractors.

According to the White House, up to 10 million households and 400,000 schools and day care centers have primary service lines.

Some of the communities that will participate in the new plan include:

  • East Newark and Newark, New Jersey
  • Erie and Pittsburgh County, Pennsylvania
  • Edgerton, Kenosha, Madison, Milwaukee, Sheboygan and Wausau, Wisconsin

“It should be a right of every inhabitant of this land and certainly of our country to have clean water, let’s start from there. So let us understand, because many may not be aware, sadly, that it’s not a guaranteed right for every occupant of our country,” Vice President Kamala Harris said at the Accelerating Lead Pipe Replacement Summit held Friday at the White House.

“In many communities, families, children, parents cannot assume that they will turn on a faucet and clean water will come out. And I think we could all agree that there is nothing about this that should be considered a luxury or an option,” Harris said during the summit’s keynote conversation with Regan.

Invited guests who attended the summit included mayors, philanthropic organizations, advocacy groups and community leaders.

Harris has sent a letter to US governors inviting them to join a larger, global coalition called the Biden-Harris Get the Lead Out Partnership.

It has so far brought together 123 municipalities, water utilities, community organizations and unions that have agreed to use federal funds to replace lead pipes, according to the vice president’s office.

“We have labor, non-profits, our agencies and the private sector, all of which are here with one thing in mind, and that is to remove lead pipes from all of our communities,” Regan said on Friday.

How the funds are distributed

The administration budgeted $15 billion in infrastructure funds over several years for the EPA to split among the states for major service line replacements.

An additional $11.7 billion went to the state EPA’s revolving fund intended to support a variety of water quality projects, including lead pipe replacements.

In 2022, the administration awarded a portion of the funds to states and territories to cover the next five years of mainline repairs.

The states that received the largest awards were California, Texas, New York, Illinois, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina and Massachusetts.

“Pennsylvanians have a constitutional right to clean air and pure water, but too many communities here in Pennsylvania suffer from old and outdated lead pipes that endanger the health of our children and families,” the Pennsylvania governor said Friday Josh Shapiro in a statement about being called to the accelerator program.

“My administration stands ready to work with President Biden, Vice President Harris and our federal partners to make lifesaving investments that will provide clean drinks for families across the Commonwealth, especially in communities that have been left behind for too long.”

The 2023 awards are expected to be announced in the spring after EPA releases its latest legally required drinking water infrastructure needs assessment and surveys, according to the agency.

Some advocacy organizations, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, criticized last year’s funding breakdown, arguing that states with the most lead pipes — such as Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey and Ohio — were getting fewer funds per replacement than states with fewer lead pipes.

“Every state has major service lines, but some have far more than others. The highest concentration of lead service lines supplying water to homes are found in the upper Midwestern and Northeastern states, as well as Texas,” the NRDC’s Cyndi Roper wrote in July.

The risks of childhood lead poisoning are not equal

Not all children and families are equally susceptible to lead exposure. The risk is greatest for those in low-income households and in older homes where plumbing fixtures, pipes and lead-based paint have not been replaced or repaired.

Recent research in 2021 continues to show that Black children and children in low-income communities consistently exhibit higher blood lead levels than their non-Hispanic white counterparts.

“It is up to the communities to hold our elected officials accountable [for] the implementation of the infrastructure bill. It’s up to the utilities to share what they need to boost their core line of services [replacement] programs. More importantly, it is up to our government agencies, mayors and governors to act with a sense of urgency to prioritize the removal of every single major service line,” said Deanna Branch, of the Milwaukee-based Coalition for Lead Emergency, at the Friday’s White House meeting.

Branch was accompanied to the podium by her 9-year-old son, Aiden, who was hospitalized with lead poisoning at the age of 2.

No level of lead is safe for children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC estimates that about half a million children in the United States have elevated blood lead levels, meaning the amount of lead found during a blood test is higher than most other children.

Some of the more common sources of exposure include lead paint in older homes, water carried through lead pipes, earth and dust near industrial sites, and imported toys or jewelry.

Children under 6 are most at risk of lead poisoning because of their hand-to-hand behavior and because their developing nervous systems are vulnerable to what may be lifelong effects of lead exposure, including a low IQ, behavior problems, developmental delays, and learning disabilities.

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