Infrastructure Agreement Includes Replacing 100% of Nation’s Lead Pipes

Image: W. Carter via Wikimedia Commons

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

According to a White House memo, the new infrastructure bill will remove and replace all of the nation’s lead pipes and service lines that provide water to up to 10 million homes and 400,000 schools and daycares. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the provision would create jobs and replace “100 percent” of lead water pipes. The package will dedicate $55 billion toward water infrastructure. The plan could alleviate pressure on cities like Chicago, which have been struggling to pay for expensive replacements on their own.

Why This Matters: A study from Healthy Babies Bright Futures found that 80% of American households contain some amount of lead in their drinking water, and 40% have levels above the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) recommendations. Lead piping has long been an issue of environmental justice.

  • Black children living in poverty are twice as likely to have elevated lead levels in their blood compared to poor white and Hispanic children.

But the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “actionable amount” would need to be reduced by 70% to prevent poisoning children. In 2019, Trump’s EPA proposed a rule that reduced how quickly cities must replace lead piping. Now, cities like Chicago struggle to find the resources to replace hundreds of thousands of lead service lines.

Leading the Way: The $579 billion bipartisan infrastructure agreement will include $55 billion for water infrastructure. Resources for pipe replacement will be distributed through water programs and grants administered by the EPA to cities, states, and public water utilities. The timeline to replace the nation’s lead piping is still to be determined. “The details are very important here. It needs to all be written into the final legislation of the bill, but the president is clearly eager to get that done as quickly as possible,” said Psaki. 

For many cities with lead pipes, it’s not just water infrastructure that needs repairing; it’s public trust as well.

Newark, which once had some of the highest rates of lead in the nation, has embarked on an aggressive replacement strategy to do just that. Its plan includes replacing the pipes at no cost to residents and providing free lead testing kits. Flint, Michigan is now wrapping up its replacement program, and advocates hope that the work of these communities can guide federal policy. Erik Olson, senior strategic director for health at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, “Flint’s brave residents have set in motion a fight for the right to safe drinking water that is so righteous and powerful, President Biden is proposing to remove every lead water pipe in America.”

The Big If: In order for this money to be allocated, the bipartisan infrastructure framework put forth by the White House and a group of senators would have to become legislation, Congress would have to pass it, and the President would have to sign it. That’s far from a done deal and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already actively attacked the framework, leading some to question whether members of his party will uphold their deal despite his rhetoric.

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