EDF Health

Selected tag(s): lead service line replacement

Denver Water proposes innovative plan to remove an estimated 75,000 lead service lines in 15 years

Lindsay McCormick, is a Program Manager. Tom Neltner, J.D., is the Chemicals Policy Director.

Yesterday, Denver Water’s board approved its proposed “Lead Reduction Program Plan” to fully replace the estimated 75,000 lead service lines (LSLs) in their system within 15 years.  The plan is an innovative solution that will remove the primary source of lead within Denver Water’s system, while avoiding the use of orthophosphate that can further exacerbate nutrient pollution problems in rivers, streams and oceans, an issue EDF’s Ecosystems team is working hard to solve.

As proposed, Denver Water would fund full replacement of LSLs through water rates, bonds and sales of new connections to the system, hydropower production and other sources rather than have individual property owners contribute.  In addition, the utility’s proposal to provide filters to residents until their LSLs are replaced represents a model other communities should consider based on the effectiveness of their ongoing pilot.  Before implementing the plan, Denver Water will need to receive approval from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

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ASDWA releases useful guidance to help states develop lead service line inventories

Tom Neltner, J.D., Chemicals Policy Director and Lindsay McCormick, Program Manager

As we have explained in past blogs, it is critical that states have rough estimates of how many lead service lines (LSLs) each drinking water utility in the state may have in order to develop sound policy decisions and set priorities. Congress recognized the importance of LSL inventories when it directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 to develop a national count of LSLs on public and private property in the next round of the 2020 Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey. States have a crucial supporting role in the Needs Survey since it is the basis of allocating State Revolving Loan Funds to the states.

This month, the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA) released a useful guidance document to help states develop LSL inventories. The guidance builds on the lessons learned from:

  • Mandatory surveys conducted by California, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin;
  • Voluntary surveys conducted by Indiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Washington; and
  • Responses to requests for updated Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) service line preliminary materials inventories conducted by Alabama, Louisiana, Kansas and Texas.

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EDF analysis: Lead service lines in Illinois communities

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director

Building statewide, comprehensive inventories of lead service lines (LSLs) in community water systems (CWSs) is a critical part of any effort to eliminate lead pipes. With a solid inventory, states can conduct a credible needs assessment and engage the public in supporting community efforts to replace LSLs.

In January 2017, the Illinois legislature passed a law designed to reduce children’s exposure to lead in drinking water. It included a requirement that CWSs submit annual reports to Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) regarding a “water distribution system material inventory” by April of each year. EDF sees Illinois’s approach to developing an inventory as a model to be considered by other states because it:

  • Requires all CWS to report (unlike Indiana which had a well-designed one-time voluntary survey but only a 57% response);
  • Covers the entire service line (unlike California which ignored the portion of the service line on private property); and
  • Requires annual updates to track progress, especially in reducing the number of service lines with unknown materials (unlike Michigan which requires updates only every five-years).

In August 2018, IEPA released a summary of the first year submissions and has updated it several times. IEPA indicated that 95% of CWSs submitted reports and provided totals of each type of piping material reported with 414,895 LSLs and 1,504,748 of unknown material. At the time, the agency did not provide information on what each CWS reported.

Making totals public is important but does little to engage the public in understanding what the information means for their community. But earlier this week, IEPA published an online tool, which allows residents to search for their water system and download the data for individual reports of the types of materials currently reported by their water system.  EDF also received the information pursuant to a Freedom of Information request. Click here to see the data for all the CWSs in a spreadsheet. We also used an EPA database to identify the 84 CWSs that did not comply with the law.

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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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New study: Homebuyers and renters take action when told they may have a lead service line

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

The Cornell/EDF study confirmed that potential buyers or renters report being much more willing to take action to replace LSLs when told they have one regardless of disclosure style. However, water testing information that shows levels below EPA’s lead action level may underestimate risk and undermine action on LSLs.

Today, EDF and collaborators at Cornell published a new study that provides insight into how disclosure policies can impact potential home-buyer and renter behavior. This effort builds on a report EDF published in 2017 grading state housing disclosure policies according to their ability to help homebuyers make informed decisions about lead service lines (LSLs) before they sign a sales contract. LSLs are pipes that connect homes to the water mains under the street and are a major source of lead in drinking water. Four states — Connecticut, Delaware, New York, and Pennsylvania — and Washington, DC scored an A-. Twenty-one states scored a D or F. The remaining 25 states scored a B or C.

Our analysis was based on a presumption that if potential homeowners are told that a home has an LSL, many would negotiate with the property owner for its removal, whether by having the seller replace it or building the cost into the mortgage to fund the buyer’s replacement. This was a reasonable presumption that underlies why sellers are required to disclose property defects and environmental hazards in many states.

However, we were interested in testing that presumption and exploring how potential homebuyers and renters might respond differently based on how the information is disclosed by a property owner or home inspector. Our objective was to evaluate disclosure styles to assess if the different styles influenced respondents’ perceived risk of the LSL in a home and willingness to act. To conduct the survey, we partnered with Jeff Niederdeppe and Hang Lu of Cornell University’s Department of Communications who recruited 2,205 participants online and gave them one of three scenarios to consider and advised them it would cost $1,000-5,000 to replace the LSL. See Figure 1 below.

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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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