EDF Health

Selected tag(s): Lead in Drinking Water

Laws in states with the most lead service lines support using rates to fund replacement on private property: New analysis

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director

We found no explicit barriers to using rate funds to replace the lines on private property in the 13 we focused on. These states have an estimated 4.2 million LSLs, more than two-thirds of the nation’s total

Lead service lines (LSLs) – the lead pipes that connect a building’s plumbing to the water main under the street – are a significant source of lead in drinking water for those homes that have them. In light of the well-documented benefits to society from reducing children’s exposure to lead, there is a consensus that we need to replace the estimated six million LSLs remaining in the country. It will take time, but it needs to be done.

One challenge to this goal is how to fund replacement of the portion of the service line on private property. Because LSLs extend from under the street to a building, typically about half of the line is on public property and half is on private property. The perception among utilities has been that they do not have the legal authority to use rates paid by customers to cover the cost of replacing the portion on private property because it provides a benefit only to that property owner. This view was reinforced when the Wisconsin Public Service Commission blocked Madison from doing it, forcing the city to use other funds to complete the work. That decision from the early 2000s came before the risks of even low-level exposure to lead were well understood.

Many utilities have therefore taken to replacing only the portion of the LSL on public property when the property owner is unwilling or unable to pay to replace the portion on private property. The practice, often called “partial replacement,” is not only inefficient but can actually exacerbate residents’ exposure to lead. As evidence of the risks of even low-level exposure to lead—and of the society-wide benefits of reducing lead exposure—have mounted and the tragedy in Flint, Michigan made clear the need to replace LSLs, states like Indiana, Missouri, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and even Wisconsin, have adopted new laws or policies that have allowed funds from rates, with some limitations, to be used to replace the side on private property. Michigan has gone further and adopted rules mandating the practice, although some utilities have challenged the rule in court.

Given the funding challenge and the trends in the states, EDF partnered with the Emmett Environmental Law & Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School to review the state laws and policies in the 13 states with the most LSLs. Clinic Deputy Director Shaun Goho and law student Marcello Saenz conducted a state-by-state review of the laws, court decisions, and policies. The authors:

Found no explicit barriers to using rate funds to replace the lines on private property. These states have an estimated 4.2 million LSLs, more than two-thirds of the nation’s total. In these states, publicly-owned utilities can act pursuant to existing state legislation by determining that the practice serves a public purpose—protecting public health. Investor-owned utilities can do the same, but typically need approval of the state’s utility commission. While we have not reviewed the remaining states, we anticipate that the state laws and policies are similar to the ones we evaluated.

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$10 in benefits for every $1 invested – Minnesota estimates benefits of lead service line replacement

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director

Last week, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) released a report estimating that investing $4 billion in virtually eliminating lead in drinking water over 20 years would provide societal benefits of more than $8 billion. The state agency only counted the societal benefits from avoiding the loss of IQ points due to children’s exposure to lead.

Replacing lead service lines (LSLs) – the lead pipes that connect a building’s plumbing to the water main under the street – yielded the greatest benefit with an investment of $0.228 to $0.365 billion yielding $2.118 to $4.235 billion in benefits. Replacing lead fixtures and solder had a lower, but still significant, return on the investment.

Based on this analysis, MDH recommended as high priority that the state conduct an inventory of LSLs and that LSLs be removed “at a measured pace” of 20 years. It also recommended undertaking as a medium priority an awareness campaign focused on the danger of lead in drinking water to formula-fed infants younger than nine months old and as a low priority a general public information campaign to prompt homeowners and renters to take action if they have an LSL.

The agency, which includes both the state’s drinking water protection program and its lead poisoning prevention program, prepared the report in response to a provision in a state appropriations law passed in 2017. The report is important because it is the first state assessment we know of, and it reports an impressive return on the investment of more than $10 for every $1 invested in LSL replacement. For these reasons, we took a close look at the analysis and the underlying assumptions.

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City of Washington, DC requires lead pipe disclosure and tackles past partial LSL replacements

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director

Washington, DC estimates there are 48,000 lead service lines (LSLs) on private property, 46 percent of the total number of service lines identified by the District. While the District has not yet set a goal of eliminating LSLs, it has taken positive steps to assist residents in replacing LSLs. It has prioritized avoiding partial LSL replacements, which are likely to increase residents’ exposure to lead, especially in the months following the disturbance.

On January 16, 2019, the District passed a new law that takes additional positive steps. First, it requires property owners to disclose the presence of an LSL to potential homebuyers and renters. The city joins Cincinnati, OH and Philadelphia, PA in requiring disclosure to renters and New York, Delaware, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania in requiring disclosure to homebuyers.

Second, it redresses past partial LSL replacements by providing financial support to homeowners who did not replace the portion on private property when they were expected to shoulder the entire burden. This is the first city we have seen take this approach. The fiscal impact statement for the law also provides insight into the cost of LSL replacement; the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water), the city’s utility, estimates the average cost to replace the portion on private property is $2,000 per line. The total cost of the law over four years if fully funded is $21 million.

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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.

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From villages to states, significant progress on lead service line replacement in 2018

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

We recently finished a round of updates to our webpages recognizing states and communities leading the way in efforts to accelerate lead service line (LSL) replacement across the country. As we start the New Year, we wanted to summarize the good news from 2018 and highlight some opportunities for more success.

Ninety-five communities are leading the way on LSL replacement programs:[1]

  • 6 communities have publicly announced that they have completely replaced all known LSLs.
  • 53 communities have publicly set a goal of eliminating LSLs on public and private property, totaling more than 300,000 LSLs. Ten of the communities are in Wisconsin; Indiana has one investor-owned utility, American Water, which operates 27 separate community water systems; Michigan has four communities; Colorado and Ohio have two; and Arkansas, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Washington have one.
  • 36 communities are publicly taking steps to replace LSLs but have not yet set a goal of full replacement. One third of these communities are from Wisconsin; seven from Illinois; and five or fewer from New York, Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Iowa, and Kentucky.

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California Water Board makes misleading claim that only four water systems have lead lines

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director

[Update 12/14/18: The California Water Boards added a webpage providing more background for customers on the inventory requirement, including the clarification that “user service line” does not include the service line on private property. This clarification was also added to the Status Map webpage.]

The California Water Board posted the results of its statewide inventory of lead service lines (LSLs) in community water systems (CWSs) yesterday. They also became the first in the nation to post the results in an interactive online map. We are pleased to see the state take this important step, but are disappointed that the press release it sent out to announce the map’s launch undermines its efforts with misleading and confusing statements.

The central problem is that the press release fails to be clear that the inventory does not cover the portion of the service line between the meter and the home or building.  As a result, a CWS that removed all of the lead pipes between the main under the street and the meter but left them on private property was listed as having no LSLs. A customer would justifiably – but mistakenly – assume that LSLs were not an issue in their community.

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