Selected category: States

Eleven states support community lead pipe replacement with proactive policies

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director and Sam Lovell, Project Specialist

The largest source of lead in drinking water is lead service lines (LSLs) – the lead pipes connecting the water main under the street to homes and other buildings. Across the country, three dozen communities, large and small, are taking steps to protect public health and respond to concerns by replacing LSLs.

States play an essential role in helping or hindering progress by communities to replace LSLs by administering EPA drinking water rules, distributing federal funded loans, and approving rates some utilities charge customers.

We identified 11 states with proactive policies supporting community efforts to replace LSLs. These states have almost 3 million LSLs based on a 2016 estimate by the American Water Works Association: just short of half the nation’s LSLs. The 11 states are making a positive difference by:

A cross section of lead pipes. Photo Credit: Georgia Health News

  • Empowering communities with grants like Wisconsin, Virginia, Vermont, and New York have done;
  • Providing options to use rate funds like Indiana and Pennsylvania have done;
  • Requiring inventories of LSLs like Illinois, California, Washington, Indiana, and Ohio have done;
  • Setting long-term goals of fully removing all LSLs like California, Washington, and Michigan have done; and
  • Helping prospective homebuyers know whether the home has an LSL.

These policies won’t ensure that all 3 million LSLs are replaced, but it takes the states one step closer to achieving the goal that in 20 years no one will be drinking water through a lead pipe.

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Cincinnati adopts an innovative plan to eliminate LSLs that is a model for other cities

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

The Cincinnati City Council enacted three ordinances in June 2017 that establish an innovative legal framework to replace the city’s 27,000 lead service lines (LSLs) over the next 15 years. The Council acted after finding that “high levels of lead in water create serious health risks to residents of the City, particularly young children, and using lead service lines between public water mains and properties increases the risk that the lead content of drinking water to the properties served will increase to a dangerous level” and that “replacing lead service lines is in the best interest of the public health, safety, morals, and general welfare.” Although the City stopped allowing new LSLs in 1927, an estimated 1 in 9 service connections still have a portion made of lead pipe.

A member of the GCWW Repair Services Team replaces an LSL. Photo credit: GCWW

Cincinnati’s program is based on Madison, Wisconsin’s successful effort, which began in 2000 and was completed in 2011. Cincinnati is roughly three times larger than Madison in terms of population, service connections, and LSLs.

Under the program, residential property owners within Greater Cincinnati Water Works’ (GCWW) service area can receive between 40 and 50% off of the cost of replacing the portion of the LSL on their property up to $1,500 if they agree to have GCWW arrange for the replacement. Owners within the limits of the City of Cincinnati may choose to have the remaining cost assessed semiannually on their property tax bill and repaid over 5 or 10 years. Property assessments must be approved by the political entity where the property resides. As of today the assessment option is only available for the residential properties in the City. However, GCWW is reaching out to the other jurisdictions it serves to discuss expanding the assessment program to those jurisdictions as well.

GCWW will also be replacing the portion of the LSL on public property so that the entire service line is replaced. The City is committed to fund its share of the work from GCWW’s Capital Budget.

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Article reveals serious shortcomings in Georgia’s oversight of lead in drinking water

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

Safe drinking water largely depends on the integrity of the public water system and the vigilance of the state regulatory agency. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets the standards, conducts the research, and oversees the state regulatory agencies. As we saw in Flint, Michigan, these protections break down when the state regulatory agency fails to identify and address potential compliance issues. Criminal charges have been filed against both state and local officials.

The Flint tragedy prompted EPA to send letters in February 2016 to governors and state agencies reminding of them of their responsibilities under the Safe Drinking Water Act and asking for a meeting with each state to discuss concerns and a written response to key compliance challenges under the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR). EPA posted the state responses online.

The tap sampling required under the LCR is critical since it triggers treatment of the water for small and medium systems and public education and lead service line replacement for all systems if treatment is insufficient. Given this central role, the LCR requires water systems to take water samples from the taps of properties most likely to have lead. For small and medium systems, single family homes with lead service lines are a top priority.

The sampling requirement is challenging since it depends on the cooperation of the resident to let the water stagnate in the lines for at least six hours and then take a first draw sample before anyone uses the water. Residents may need an incentive to cooperate, especially over many years.

A disturbing, three-part investigative report by WebMD and Georgia Health News provided insight into potential shortcomings by utilities that are likely to underestimate the levels. It also highlights Georgia’s apparent failure to identify the problems. The investigators checked on changes in the sampling sites over the years and looked up the sampling locations to determine if they fit the criteria laid out in EPA’s rule. It is an impressive deep dive into LCR compliance sampling issues.

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Michael Dourson’s Toxic Wake: Locations Across the US Contaminated by Eight Chemicals “Blessed” by Trump EPA Toxics Nominee

Samantha Lovell is a Project Specialist.

[Update added November 17: On October 25, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works voted to advance Michael Dourson’s nomination to oversee chemical safety at the EPA. The fight is now in the full Senate, where two Republican senators have already come out against Dourson. With Democrats standing in strong opposition to this toxic nominee, Dourson's nomination will not move forward if one more Republican senator comes out against him.]

[Use this link to see all of our posts on Dourson.]

In past blogs, we have documented deep concerns about Dourson’s extensive, longstanding ties to the chemical industry in addition to his earlier work for the tobacco industry. Dourson and his company Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment (TERA) were paid for their work by more than three dozen companies or trade associations, involving at least three dozen different chemicals.

Several recent news stories and reports have identified examples where Dourson or TERA helped industry play down health concerns about chemicals, including Dourson’s work in West Virginia involving the “Teflon” chemical PFOA and his study funded by Koch Industries in Chicago involving petroleum coke.

To illustrate the real-world impacts of his work, we have identified locations across the country where eight of the chemicals that Dourson has “blessed” have stirred concerns from residents about polluted water, soil, and air or poisoned residents and workers.

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Lead service lines on private property – 3 states’ approaches to the challenge

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

After the tragedy in Flint, Michigan, there is broad agreement that lead service lines (LSLs) need to be replaced. While corrosion control is essential, it isn’t a fail-safe, long-term solution. With the risks posed by lead to children’s brain development, we must eliminate LSLs – which currently account for an estimated 50 to 75% of the lead in drinking water.

One of the most significant challenges is determining who pays for replacing the portion of a LSL on private property and how it can be done in a way that does not leave low-income residents behind. Most utilities consider service lines on private property to be the responsibility of the property owner. They see replacing customer-owned portions of LSLs as improvements to private property and are typically restricted from using funds collected from all customers to fund an upgrade that benefits only a few. States often impose restrictions as well.

The interpretation that customers are responsible for LSLs on their property is ironic in communities such as Chicago, which mandated the use of LSLs until Congress banned them in 1986.  Given that they had a hand in creating the problem, it seems that they have at least some responsibility in fixing it. The threat posed by lead was well known for decades before Congress acted. Cities such as Cincinnati banned the use of lead pipes in 1927 and Boston in the 1930s.

It is difficult to put responsibility solely on the homeowner since they are unlikely to have been told they have a LSL by the seller. Even if they were aware that their home is serviced by an LSL, the risk a LSL poses to their family’s health is only now becoming clear.

Without support, low-income residents often cannot afford to pay for their portion of the LSL replacement, even if they get zero- or low-interest loans. However, wealthy residents have more options to make the investment than their low-income neighbors and landlords should be making the investment as part of their business.

In December 2016, Congress weighed in and authorized EPA “to establish a $300 million grant program to replace lead service lines on residential property in disadvantaged communities.”[1] It is up to Congress to appropriate the funds as part of its infrastructure investments and ensure that the grant program will not be a hollow promise.

But many states are not waiting on Congress. Three states, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, have been wrestling with whether to allow communities to use a portion of rates paid by customers to pay for LSL replacements. Collectively, these states have an estimated 690,000 LSLs, 11% of the national estimate. In this blog, we will explore these three state approaches. Read More »

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Report: Grading the nation on lead pipe disclosure policies

Lindsay McCormick is a Project Manager.  

When purchasing a home, buyers expect to be informed about deficiencies, defects, or environmental hazards on the property. Since 1996, there have been federal policies to alert buyers about lead in paint. However, the likelihood that a buyer will be told their prospective home has lead pipes, including a lead service line, depends on the state in which they live.

Lead service lines (LSLs) – the lead pipes connecting water mains under the street to homes and other buildings – are the primary source of lead in drinking water. Up to 10 million homes across the nation continue to receive water through LSLs, putting millions at risk of lead exposure. Homebuyers deserve to know about this liability when they choose a home and negotiate a price. When done properly, removing the full LSL significantly reduces the risk of lead exposure.

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) analyzed and graded the housing disclosure policies of all U.S. states and the District of Columbia according to their ability to help homebuyers make informed decisions about LSLs before they sign a sales contract by assessing state disclosure laws, required disclosure forms, and voluntary disclosure forms.  We did not address the extent to which LSLs are actively being disclosed under each policy. Read More »

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