Environmental justice woes spring from lead pipe replacement

This story was updated at 2:44 p.m. EST.

A first study of its kind provides new evidence that the widespread practice of removing only certain parts of lead pipes disproportionately pollutes low-income minority neighborhoods.

The results fuel calls for EPA to ensure billions of infrastructure dollars distributed through state revolving funds to utilities across the country are spent fairly and comply with longstanding federal citizenship laws.

“We believe the EPA must take tough action and ensure that states stop the discrimination that can happen with this SRF money,” said Tom Neltner, a senior attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund.

It’s a peer-reviewed report published in the online open source journal Sustainability that found that residents who lived in low-income Washington neighborhoods between 2009 and 2018 were less likely than their wealthier, white ones Pay neighbors to replace full service lines. A private resident would have had to raise more than $ 2,000 at this point to have that portion of their senior service line removed.

Digging up and replacing the aging aqueducts that connect homes to massive aqueducts is vital as the lines leach lead, a neurotoxin, into drinking water and threaten mental and behavioral development in children and health effects in adults. The EPA estimates there could be up to 10 million lead service lines in the U.S., but public health advocates say the number is likely much higher.

Treatment of only portions of such old water pipes has long been a concern as the practice can accelerate the release of lead from corrosive pipes or disrupt the coating of pipes that normally protect against leaching.

While the case study focuses only on Washington, the research has far-reaching implications as the practice of utilities replacing only portions of the main lines is widespread but poorly pursued, said Karen Baehler, assistant faculty dean and scholar at the School of Public Affairs at American University, who led the research. The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on an Environmental Defense Fund grant.

Baehler noted that only three states – Michigan, New Jersey, and Illinois – have banned the practice. “Three states have banned the practice,” she said. “Elsewhere, we believe that it could be up to 90 percent of utilities that are using them.”

The study is novel in terms of its conclusions and current policy discussions.

While there is a large body of literature on the science and implications of partial lead replacement, there does not appear to be any research examining the impact of replacement patterns on equal opportunity using administrative data, Baehler said.

She hopes the Biden administration will take the results into account when considering how to push a new lead and copper rule and when infrastructure dollars flow out of the agency. It’s especially critical, she noted, because the EPA allowed a Trump-era lead and copper rule to go into effect that doesn’t prohibit the practice.

EPO Administrator Michael Regan, when it issued the first tranche of infrastructure funds late last year – out of a total of $ 15 billion available in the package – urged states to stop spending in underserved communities hit by failing systems and pollution. those who have not received their fair share should give priority to the promotion of the federal water infrastructure. Regan also stated in his letter that the EPA is providing technical assistance to help disadvantaged communities overcome obstacles in applying for loans and grants, but it is up to local and state officials to ensure these communities apply (E&E News PM, December 2, 2021).

EDF’s Neltner said the case study provides another incentive to ban the practice in its new lead and copper rule, but also makes an even clearer case that the agency must enforce longstanding federal civil rights laws that require anyone who receives federal funds to ensure that there is no discrimination when these dollars are spent.

Citing a recent civil rights complaint he and other environmental and public health advocates filed with the EPA against a local Rhode Island water company, Neltner argued that the utility’s practice of partially removing lead lines increased the risk of lead exposure Black residents with low incomes have increased their drinking water disproportionately (Greenwire, January 7). Providence Water, which uses federal dollars through state revolving funds in the form of loans, continues to work to eliminate senior service lines, partner with state and federal experts, and fund low-income residents.

However, Neltner said the practice of partial line removal is discriminatory and the EPA needs to step in, and he asked the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) last week to prioritize the issue.

Proponents say that a provision in the Trump-era Lead and Copper Rule is also discriminatory, the so-called customer-initiated provision, which allows residents to require a utility company to replace a lead service line if they can raise the money to replace the part of their own property. However, Neltner noted that utilities will not have to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act rule for another three years, and he hopes the EPA will address the issue as part of their revisions.

“At this point, it’s a little hard to tell how far you want to go, but our point is that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 already provides for that obligation,” he said.

An EPA spokesman said in an email that the agency is aware of the practice of partial line replacement and that doing so may lead to a short-term increase in lead concentrations in drinking water and further increase the health risks for lead from service lines as part of the lead line remains in operation. The EPA said it is “urgently preventing” water systems from using this practice.

“Although the agency does not have an estimate of the number of service hotlines for partial lines, we know that there is no safe level of lead exposure,” the spokesman said. “For this reason, President Biden has asked for 100% of the lead pipes to be removed. The EPA undertakes to use all official and non-official instruments available to the agency and its federal partners in order to accelerate the exchange of lead service lines. “

The EPA, he said, will consider the requirements for lead line replacement as part of its rulemaking, noting that the agency has also determined that a number of potential non-regulatory measures are available to further reduce lead pollution in drinking water to reduce.

“Fairly significant gap”

Baehler’s team focused on Washington as the local water company’s debris disposal program is not only home to American University, but also reflects typical programs used across the country.

At the time, the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water), the local utility, took two approaches to removing lead water pipes.

In the first “customer initiated” option, homeowners organized the exchange themselves or took the initiative to contact DC Water to send a crew to do a full exchange. The second path involved the utility company’s offer to replace the full service line while other planned work was being done on the road.

The researchers found that while the utility had done a good job replacing the pipes, only replacing parts of the pipes also had negative, unintended consequences.

Using regression models and geocoding, the researchers analyzed the 2010 Washington census areas. When comparing a neighborhood with median income levels of about $ 76,000 per year and the lowest median household income of about $ 15,000 per year, they found that full replacement of lead service lines in the more affluent and less heterogeneous neighborhoods would add more than 50 percent would increase.

“That means if you take the lowest income census and increase your income to that median, you might get 50 to 60 percent more full replacements in that census,” Baehler said. “That’s a pretty big loophole.”

The authors concluded that “The inequalities identified in this study raise serious questions about which populations have waited longest for an appropriate environmental remedy to address the lead risk problem in drinking water, both in Washington, DC and possibly across the country. “

The study period ended in 2018, as did the exchange of sections in the state capital.

That’s because Washington City Council accepted and approved funding for a new approach to lead line replacement in 2019, according to the report, which imposes a new regulation requiring the city to pay for more equal access to full replacement of lead lines.

Betsy Southerland, a former EPA top water worker, now with the Environmental Protection Network, agreed with Neltner that the Trump-era regulation requires water systems to develop replacement programs no later than three years after the rule comes into effect.

This includes developing a strategy to accommodate customers who cannot afford to replace their portion of the line – as the rule does not require utilities to pay for private lines – and a strategy to prioritize the replacement.

For the coming fiscal year, she said, the EPA has $ 25 million in water infrastructure improvements to fund the Nation Act that could be used to replace private pipelines. While the Build Back Better package faces a rocky future, it also includes up to $ 10 billion more that could be used to break down lead lines, as well as tens of billions of dollars in public and government-sponsored housing.

“All of this means the EPA should focus on raising funds to replace private lines when homeowners are unable to pay,” Southerland wrote in an email.

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