Update: EPA agrees to investigate civil rights allegations against Providence Water’s LSL replacement practices

Jennifer Ortega, Research Analyst, and Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director

At the start of this year, Childhood Lead Action Project (CLAP), South Providence Neighborhood Association, Direct Action for Rights and Equality, National Center for Healthy Housing, and EDF submitted an administrative civil rights complaint to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) against Providence Water Supply Board (Providence Water), Rhode Island’s largest water utility. The complaint alleges that the water utility’s lead service line (LSL) replacement practices put Black, Latinx, and Native American residents at a disproportionately higher risk of lead exposure, in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

We are excited to share that EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office (ECRCO) accepted “for investigation [the] administrative complaint filed against the Providence Water Supply Board.” ECRCO “determined that the complaint meets the jurisdictional requirements” needed to examine the claims. The Office made its decision only five weeks after the administrative complaint was submitted, far quicker than the timeline for most other complaints.

ECRCO will now investigate whether Providence Water’s LSL replacement practices have the effect of discriminating against certain customers on the basis of race and national origin. The Office will also examine whether Providence Water properly administers procedural safeguards to ensure the utility is complying with non-discrimination regulations, as required for recipients of EPA funding. ECRCO has 180 days to issue its preliminary findings.

To our knowledge, this decision marks the first time ECRCO has agreed to examine a water utility and the all-too-common practice of requiring customers to pay to replace LSLs on private property as a potential civil rights violation. This decision should send a strong signal to other states and water utilities that use similar practices, especially as the agency begins to distribute more than $26 billion in additional State Revolving Fund loans included in last year’s bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and as they simultaneously work on the Lead and Copper Rule Improvements (LCRI) to address economic and environmental justice concerns.

In addition to ECRCO’s action, we also learned that the Rhode Island attorney general’s office threw its weight behind the administrative complaint and urged ECRCO “to thoroughly investigate” the claims made by CLAP and the other organizations. The attorney general’s office also said EPA should take steps to remedy the harm to impacted communities.

“Creating a cost barrier to private side replacement has caused disparate harm to Black, Latinx, and Native American Providence Water customers who are more likely to live in homes serviced by LSLs, live in poverty, rent their homes, and experience the compounding effects of disparate exposure to other environmental hazards,” the attorney general’s office said in its letter.

ECRCO provided Providence Water an opportunity to address the claims in writing. We encourage the utility and EPA to make the response public.

The utility will also have the option to resolve the concerns pursuant to ECRCO’s Case Resolution Manual. If Providence Water seeks to resolve the concerns through an informal resolution agreement and ECRCO agrees, the Office would suspend the investigation and would resume it if no resolution is reached. Given the extent of the options, it is our hope that the communities serviced by Providence Water can be appropriately engaged throughout the process.

We are encouraged to see ECRCO agree to investigate the issues in Providence and the surrounding areas. Unfortunately, Providence Water’s practice of conducting incomplete LSL replacements is not unique. While several cities have taken steps to cover the cost of replacing LSLs for all residents, many utilities across the country still require customers to pay to replace the portion of the LSL on private property. This can result in racial discrimination where a community has a history of racial segregation and economic disparity.

We encourage ECRCO to continue its investigation and look forward to its preliminary findings. We also invite other communities to reach out to us if they are concerned about similar LSL replacement practices in their areas.

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