EDF considers potential health equity impacts of partial lead service line replacement

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director and Lindsay McCormick is a Project Manager.

“LSL replacement initiatives should address barriers to participation so that consumers served by LSLs can benefit equitably, regardless of income, race or ethnicity.”

– A founding principle of the Lead Service Line Replacement Collaborative

States and communities across the country are taking important steps to accelerate replacement of lead service lines (LSLs) – lead pipes connecting the water main under the street to homes and other buildings. As part of this progress, many programs have strictly limited the standard practice of partial LSL replacement – replacing only the portion of the LSL on public property, which commonly arises when rehabilitating the main and reconnecting the existing line. Partial replacement is likely to increase, at least temporarily, lead levels in drinking water in homes and may not reduce lead exposure in the long run.

The default approach for most water utilities rehabilitating their main has been to simply alert property owners to the risk of partial replacement and advise them to hire a contractor to voluntarily replace the remaining portion of the LSL on their property.

Other utilities have rejected this approach and gone further to protect residents. For example, Washington, DC offers to coordinate private side and public side replacement to reduce costs and make participation easier but still expects the property owner to pay for the private side. Others, such as Cincinnati, OH, have required full LSL replacement, providing a significant subsidy to the homeowner and allowing the cost to be spread over ten years through a property tax assessment. Indiana American Water and Philadelphia, PA go even further and pay for the cost of full LSL replacement out of ratepayer or capital improvement funds. States are acting too, with Michigan requiring utilities to pay the cost of replacement on private property and Wisconsin requiring cost sharing. For more examples, see our webpages recognizing communities and states that are leading the way.

As described in the Health Impact Partnerships’ recent report on equity concerns in lead prevention policies, there are potentially serious health equity implications from the default approach. Low-income residents may be less likely to participate than higher-income residents and property owners. Similarly, landlords may be hesitant to make the investment. As a result, renters – who are more often low-income – may be exposed to greater levels of lead in their drinking water due to partial LSL replacement.

The issue is important because low-income and minority residents already are disproportionately impacted by lead poisoning. The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Drinking Water Advisory Council raised this issue as an environmental justice concern in its recommendations to the agency to overhaul the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR). The LSL Replacement Collaborative, of which EDF is a founding member, set equity as one of its nine guiding principles (see quote above).

In addition to these potential health equity issues, relying on the homeowner to voluntarily replace the private side of the LSL also has legal consequences if the work is funded, even in part, by the federal government, such as through the Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund (DWSRF). Specifically, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits federal government funding from being used to create or aggravate a disproportionate impact on minorities. EPA must also consider this issue when it revises the LCR.

To date, the equity concerns have generally been based on anecdotes, expert opinions and hypotheses. EDF saw the need to determine whether voluntary LSL replacement programs have disproportionate impacts on minority and low-income residents in a more rigorous, scientific manner. To explore further, we are partnering with American University to design a study evaluating a decade of DC Water’s data, the most data-rich system we are aware of. DC Water has agreed to join the study, and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has generously provided funding. Dr. Karen Baehler of American University’s School of Public Affairs will lead the effort.

In the mid-2000s, the city offered grants and low interest loans to property owners to encourage full LSL replacement during the accelerated LSL replacement program triggered by the city’s lead action level exceedance. These grants and loans were no longer funded when the city’s lead levels returned below federal standards.  On a positive note, in December 2018, the Council for the District of Columbia (Washington DC) passed a bill that, if adequately funded, would appear to address the health equity issue going forward. Under the bill (once signed), the city will pay for full LSL replacement when the utility needs to disturb the LSL on public property. Where it had previously replaced the LSL on public property but the homeowner chose not to participate in the voluntary program, the homeowner can get financial assistance to replace the LSL on private property. Finally, the City will require residential property owners to disclose the presence of LSLs and other information to homebuyers and renters.

We hope to have results of the study available in May of 2019 so we can share them with EPA for consideration as part of its LCR revisions and its ongoing decisions on the DWSRF to ensure its policies are consistent with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We will seek feedback on draft reports of the study from environmental justice groups, water utilities, and other stakeholders to get their feedback on the findings.

Please contact either of us if you have questions or suggestions.

Tom Neltner: tneltner@edf.org

Lindsay McCormick: lmccormick@edf.org

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