EDF Health

Selected tag(s): Texas

Hurricanes Coming: Protecting Black and Brown Neighborhoods from a “Triple Whammy”

Elena Craft, Ph.D., is Senior Director of Climate and Health

This is the first in a series of Global Clean Air blogs on COVID-19 and air pollution. EDF scientists will share data about pollution levels during quarantine from a local and global perspective, and provide recommendations for governments and companies to Rebuild Better.

A black man who lived most of his 88 years in Pleasantville was one of the first Houstonians to die from COVID-19.

James C. Campbell, Source: ABC13.com Houston

His name was James C. Campbell. He raised a family in one of the first neighborhoods in the city planned for black Houstonians, Pleasantville, which has been surrounded in the years since it was founded by congested interstates, salvage yards, metal recyclers, and a sprawling brewery where heavy trucks come and go day and night. Pleasantville residents still share stories about where they were when chemicals in warehouses exploded in the 1990s and forced them to flee their neighborhood for safety.

Just days after Campbell’s funeral in early April, as the coronavirus started to spread across Texas, UT Health researchers mapped neighborhoods across Houston like Pleasantville where residents suffering from underlying health conditions and from years of exposure to air pollution were at increased risk from the worst impacts of a COVID infection. The intention was clear: Data could help local government leaders decide how, and where, to marshal resources to protect the health of those who needed it most.

Disasters do not impact neighborhoods equally, data like that show. It’s clear during the coronavirus pandemic, just as it was clear during past disasters like Hurricane Harvey. In 2017, for example, in the first, and worst days of the storm, 93 percent of all known toxic emissions in all of Harris County were released within a four-mile radius of the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood Manchester — an area that includes Pleasantville — even though it makes up less than 5 percent of the county geographically.

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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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