Community groups allege Providence Water’s lead pipe replacement strategy is discriminatory

For the past decade, the Providence water company has been working on replacing lead pipes. But the way they do it disproportionately increases the risk of lead exposure for Black, Latin American and Native American people, community groups claim.

In a complaint filed with the Environmental Protection Agency, five stakeholders allege Providence Water violated EPA regulations and the Civil Rights Act by requiring property owners to pay for curb-to-home plumbing swaps.

In Providence, more than a third of those connecting pipes known as service lines are made of lead, and people of color, tenants and families living in poverty are more likely to have pipes in attached houses, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.

Lead pipes can contaminate drinking water, which can cause developmental delays in children, especially babies who drink infant formula, and Providence Water’s lead levels routinely exceed the EPA’s action benchmark. The utility is used Providence, North Providence, Cranston, Johnston, and East Smithfield.

“By requiring homeowners and landlords to pay to take advantage of a full [lead service line] Substitute … Providence Water causes disproportionate health effects. This is because Black, Latin American, and Native American residents of the Providence Water service area tend to be less able to pay for a full one [lead service line] Replacements and are more inclined to rent their homes than their white and often wealthier counterparts, ”the lawsuit reads.

If the line is partially removed, the lead content in the water can increase for several months.

The groups – Childhood Lead Action Project, Direct Action for Rights and Equality, South Providence Neighborhood Association, National Center for Healthy Housing, and Environmental Defense Fund – cite evidence that more than 40 percent of those participating in an interest-free loan program to finance lead pipe replacement were in the city’s richest zip code, which is less than 10 percent of the population of the Providence Water area.

The groups ask the EPA to instruct the utility company to offer full pipe replacement to customers for free and to track the impact of lead replacement programs on local residents by race.

“Providence Water takes lead very seriously at our customers’ taps,” said a statement from the utility company. In addition, Providence Water is working closely with the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank to maximize funding from the federal infrastructure bill to remove leading service lines. This program is intended to prioritize the exchange of leading service lines in disadvantaged areas in our entire service area. ”

Devra Levy, an attorney for the Childhood Lead Action Project, spoke to The Public’s Radio about the complaint. The interview was edited lengthways.

Devra levy: So when ProvWater carries out the routine replacement of the water pipe, which they have been doing for a number of years in their supply area, they also have the option of replacing the supply pipe that goes from the water pipe into the street to every single house. They reach out to the landowners as they replace them and offer a loan to pay for the other half of the pipeline that runs from the property line to the house. However, if for some reason real estate owners cannot afford the loan or are unwilling to take it out, they carry out the partial replacement. So they cut the pipe in half and replaced half of it, which is not a good thing for two reasons. Firstly, they obviously still leave half of the lead pipe in the ground and secondly, in part because of that, the replacement can actually lead to an increase in the level of lead in the water. So it can make drinking the water more dangerous.

Sofie Rudin: And the Childhood Lead Action Project is one of five organizations that say this type of pipe swapping is discriminatory. Why is that discriminatory?

Raise: So that means that people who can’t afford a loan or renters whose landlords don’t take out a loan still have half of a lead to drink their water through, and those higher levels of lead and water through the partial Exchange. And we say this is discriminatory under the Civil Rights Act because, as we pointed out in the complaint, using data from ProvWater’s service area, lower-income people and tenants in this area are more likely to be Black, Latinx, and Native American. . So it effectively means that people who can afford the credit, who are disproportionately white, have access to cleaner drinking water than those who cannot.

Rudin: We know this problem is not new. The lead pipes are old. What made you decide to file this complaint now?

Raise: That’s a good question. I mean, this practice has been around for a long time. And we have been vocal about our opposition to this and our demand for a full replacement of lead pipes from the start. I think one of the reasons it’s timely right now, aside from the fact that it’s been taking too long, is that there’s a lot of money available for this project. While the ProvWater complaint is focused on the community level, we know that Rhode Island has allocated over $ 100 million specifically to lead service line exchanges through the infrastructure bill passed, which is really great. It is the most money we have ever had for a landfill, maybe ever. It still won’t be enough. So we want to see that the money that is already there is properly spent, which is part of what we want to highlight in this complaint: in the past, when such projects have been carried out, they have been in ways that are not really help everyone, and which actually create more gaps in who is and who is not exposed to lead. We want ProvWater to work on this, but we also want the state to take some leadership to make sure that happens.

Rudin: I imagine ProvWater could say, you know, we can’t replace plumbing on private property without the owner buying in. Do you think that’s fair?

Raise: Well I think buying property from landowners would still be part of what we are asking for. We ask ProvWater not to ask the property owner to pay for the project. Nobody should have to pay for the right to clean and safe drinking water. We have seen this in other places. One of the best examples is actually in North Providence. A few years ago, North Providence used city funds to provide grants to property owners to replace all lead service lines in lieu of loans. And they could replace almost all lead pipes in the city. Another example is from Newark. Newark is well on its way to replacing nearly 20,000 lead service lines over the next several years, completely free of charge with no real estate owner payment. So this is possible. These are just two examples. It happened in many other places. Providence can do better and it should do better.


  • Find out more about the health effects of lead in drinking water
  • Verify that your home has a senior service line
  • Learn more about Providence Waters 0% interest loan Program for the exchange of lead service lines

The reporter Sofie Rudin can be reached at [email protected]

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