The next infrastructure stimulus bill is the right place for lead pipe replacement funding – to create jobs, save money and provide safer water for all

Joanna Slaney, Legislative Director and Tom Neltner, J.D., Chemicals Policy Director.

Note to readers: As we all grapple with the grave global health challenge from COVID-19, we want to acknowledge the essential service that the public health professionals at water utilities provide in delivering safe water not only for drinking but for washing our hands and our surroundings.

During the past few weeks, Congress has taken extraordinary measures to provide much-needed emergency relief to people as we collectively struggle with the COVID-19 crises. Over the coming months, lawmakers have said they will turn their attention to providing funding to stimulate the economy with a focus on water infrastructure as a priority. Lead pipe replacement should be an essential part of that effort.

To guide the Congressional effort, EDF and hundreds of others signed onto U.S. Water Alliance’s COVID-19 Relief and Recovery: Guiding Principles to Secure Our Water Future. The four principles are:

  1. Ensure water is reliable and affordable to all
  2. Strengthen water utilities of all sizes
  3. Close the water access gap
  4. Fuel economic recovery by investing in water systems

In line with of our support for these principles, EDF is advocating that Congress provide $45 billion for water utilities to fully replace lead service lines (LSL) – the lead pipes connecting a home to the water main under the street. Today, there are more than nine million homes still serviced by LSLs in the country, exposing millions of children and adults to the myriad of harms associated with lead. For children, these harms include undermining brain development. In adults, lead has been shown to cause heart disease, cancer, and impact the neurological, reproductive, and immune systems. While there is broad consensus that LSLs must be fully removed to protect public health, funding challenges have stymied progress.

A $45 billion investment in LSL replacement would:

  • Protect public health by enabling water systems around the country to quickly begin eliminating the LSLs to protect residents. We have already seen from Newark and Flint that with adequate funding, communities can dramatically accelerate full LSL replacement.
  • More than pay for itself by yielding more than $205 billion in societal benefits in reduced cardiovascular disease deaths over 35 years — a 450% return on the investment on top of the benefits in protecting children’s brain development. The savings per line is greater than $22,000 while the average costs, when the work is done systematically and efficiently, is less than $5,000.
  • Permanently upgrade infrastructure by facilitating critical upgrades to water distribution systems in a way that protects residents from increased lead in their drinking water when the LSL is disturbed.
  • Reduce disparities by enabling utilities to fully replace LSLs, thereby resolving equity concerns that utilities currently face in replacing the lead pipe on private property. Funding would allow utilities to avoid rate increases on residents that would disproportionately impact low-income communities. Without support, these residents have to choose whether to pay for an LSL replacement out of pocket or risk exposure to more lead – a practice shown to pose serious environmental justice concerns.
  • Create jobs for the plumbers and contractors who will perform the LSL replacements. This is shovel-ready work that involves construction and plumbing crews conducting the replacement. Utilities may not know where every LSL is located, but they know where most are and can get started quickly.

The time is right to invest in our communities by upgrading our drinking water infrastructure. Cities, suburbs, towns, rural communities, and utilities share the goal of reducing lead exposure to children and adults, but funding is needed to conduct the replacements without placing too much burden on ratepayers – especially those already struggling to pay their water bills. The $45 billion investment in full LSL replacement will strengthen the overall effort by better protecting health and reducing disparities.

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