American Jobs Plan Aims To Regain Public Trust In Safety of Drinking Water

Graphic: Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

By Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

From 2018 to 2020, over 61 million people were exposed to water with more lead than is safe to drink. President Biden’s American Jobs Plan, if funded, would fix this problem by spending $45 billion to replace more than 6 million lead-pipe service lines across the country.  Infamously, in Flint, MI, thousands of children were exposed to water contaminated with lead, in one of the worst public health disasters in recent memory. But it’s been difficult to remove these pipes since many of the communities that still have them don’t have the money to do so. For example, The Washington Post reported that Milwaukee’s current rate of replacement would take about 70 years for completion, while in Chicago, which has about 380,000 lead lines, the job as recently proposed would take 500 years.

Why this Matters:  Lead pipes predominantly impact low-income, nonwhite communities across the nation — they are a major environmental justice flashpoint. Biden told Congress last month that these lead pipes are “a clear and present danger to our children’s health.” Biden’s measure that addresses the removal of lead pipes is one of the most popular parts of his $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal — a CBS News poll showed 85 percent approval. This would help alleviate a major environmental justice concern and regain Americans’ trust in their municipal water systems. 

Bipartisan Support 

The initial standard, written in 1991 and ratified under the H.W. Bush administration, required 90% of homes tested to have lead levels below 15 parts per million. The Trump administration changed the rule, lowering the “trigger level” to 10 parts per billion and ensuring that utilities test water from homes with lead service lines. But Trump extended the deadline for utilities to replace these lead water lines from 14 to 33 years. This left millions of Americans with contaminated tap water, putting young children especially at risk of lead poisoning and irreversible brain damage. 

The good news is that the bill that improves this water infrastructure has bipartisan support. The Senate voted 89 to 2 to spend $35 billion on fixing America’s water systems. But there is still room to improve, as Biden initially advocated for setting aside $111 billion to mend treatment plants and service lines. He emphasized that this could help “create thousands and thousands of good-paying jobs” for plumbers and pipefitters.

But regaining the public’s trust after years of neglecting their unsafe drinking water will be difficult. Wayne Vradenburgh, head of the local water department in Newburgh, NY — a town where a quarter of the city’s 28,000 residents live in poverty, many in buildings with lead pipes — emphasized that residents no longer believe in the safety of tap water.  “We lost the trust of the public,” he told the Washington Post. “You can’t put a money value to that.”

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