EDF Health

NEPA requires water utilities to evaluate potential discriminatory effects before starting work that disturbs lead pipes

Tom Neltner, Senior Director, Safer Chemicals Initiative; and Jennifer Ortega, Research Analyst

Providence Water, Rhode Island’s largest water utility, has applied for state funds to rehabilitate drinking water mains in its service area. Lead service lines (LSLs) are often attached to the mains and carry drinking water to customer’s homes. The utility has requested a “categorical exclusion” from the basic environmental assessment requirement for projects seeking money from the State Revolving Loan Fund (SRF). We believe the exclusion is not appropriate and have sent a letter to the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) asking it to deny Providence Water’s request.

As part of its work, Providence Water apparently plans to replace LSLs on public property and give customers the option to accept a 10-year interest free loan to replace the LSLs that run under their private property. However, this practice forces customers to choose between paying for a full LSL replacement or risking greater lead exposure from the disturbance caused by a partial LSL replacement. It is also the basis of a civil rights complaint that Childhood Lead Action Project (CLAP), South Providence Neighborhood Association, Direct Action for Rights and Equality, National Center for Healthy Housing, and EDF filed with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in January.

EPA, which allocates grants to SRF programs has begun to investigate the civil rights issues raised by the complaint, which demonstrated that Providence Water’s practices disproportionately and adversely affect the health of low-income, Black, Latinx, and Native American residents by increasing their risk of exposure to lead in drinking water.

Under federal and state National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations, SRF projects are not eligible for a categorical exclusion where an “extraordinary circumstance” is present. The discriminatory effects of Providence Water’s LSL replacement practices represent such a circumstance, and the utility should not be eligible for a categorical exclusion unless it changes its LSL replacement practices. Read More »

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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. Read More »

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In latest act of leadership, Cincinnati votes to cover the cost of replacing lead pipes for all residents

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director

The Cincinnati City Council has voted unanimously to authorize Greater Cincinnati Water Works (GCWW) to pay 100% of the cost of replacing private lead service lines (LSLs) that bring drinking water to customers’ homes and other buildings. The Council’s December vote supports its larger strategy to “provide quality healthy housing for all income levels.” More broadly, the action is the latest act of leadership from the city as it works to address the environmental justice issues in its communities.

The ordinance gives GCWW the authority to help more customers pay to fully replace LSLs as the utility conducts infrastructure work on drinking water mains that connect to the lead pipes. Since 2017, the utility has subsidized up to 40% of a customer’s replacement cost through grants, and allowed customers to take a 10-year, interest-free loan.

Despite these incentives, the utility recognized that the cost of replacement was an obstacle for many customers, especially for low-income residents. About 60% of customers declined to participate, leaving them with partial LSL replacements that left lead pipes on private property in place. These partial replacements create higher short-term spikes in lead levels in drinking water and do not reliably reduce the risk of lead exposure over the long-term, as full replacement does. This is an important step for Cincinnati, as it ends LSL replacement practices that force customers to share in the costs that can lead to environmental justice and civil rights issues. Read More »

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Civil rights complaint draws attention to the discriminatory impacts of common lead pipe replacement practice

Jennifer Ortega, Research Analyst, Environmental Health

This past Wednesday, Rhode Island’s Childhood Lead Action Project (CLAP) led a coalition of groups in submitting a civil rights complaint to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) against the Providence Water Supply Board (Providence Water), pursuant to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The administrative complaint highlights the discriminatory effects that can result when utilities require customers to share the cost of replacing the lead pipes that feed into their homes. The complaint was submitted as part of CLAP’s larger Lead-Free Water RI campaign, which calls “for an equitable, statewide plan for full, free lead pipe replacements for all Rhode Islanders.”

In the complaint, CLAP, South Providence Neighborhood Association, Direct Action for Rights and Equality, National Center for Healthy Housing, and EDF allege that the water utility’s process of replacing lead service lines (LSLs) — the lead pipes that run from the water main to the water meter in homes — has a disparate impact on Black, Latinx, and Native American residents in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and EPA’s implementing regulations. Read More »

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An environmental justice case study: how lead pipe replacement programs favor wealthier residents

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director and Lindsay McCormick, Program Manager 

Dr. Karen Baehler and her team at American University’s Center for Environmental Policy, with support from EDF, recently published a peer-reviewed case study highlighting the environmental justice issues that arise when water utilities require property owners to pay when they replace lead service lines (LSLs) that connect homes to the water main under the street. Our experience indicates that the vast majority of the 11,000+ water utilities in the U.S. engage in this practice. Based on the findings, these utilities need to reconsider their programs as they address the more than 9 million LSLs nationwide.  

The study found that Washington, DC residents in low-income neighborhoods between 2009-2018 were significantly less likely than those in wealthier neighborhoods to pay for a full LSL replacement and, therefore, had an increased risk of harm from lead exposure from a partial LSL replacement. 

The practice of requiring customers to pay for a full LSL replacement also raises civil rights concerns in cities like Washington, DC that have a history of racial segregation, redlining, and underinvestment in neighborhoods predominately comprised of people of color. If a utility that follows this practice also receives federal funding such as state revolving loan funds (SRFs), it may be violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While Washington, DC largely resolved the issue in 2019 by banning partial replacements and addressing “past partials” left in the ground, this scenario is replicated across the country.  Read More »

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State legislation requires replacement of ¼ of the country’s lead pipes

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director

With the recent passage of excellent legislation in Illinois and New Jersey, one out of every four of the nation’s lead service lines (LSLs) is on a mandatory schedule to be fully replaced, with strict limits on partial replacement in the interim. These states now join Michigan in leading the way on replacing lead pipes– made all the more important because they have some of the highest numbers of LSLs in the country.

Both the Illinois and New Jersey laws[1] were the result of extensive negotiations between stakeholders and were passed with broad bipartisan support. We applaud the bill sponsors and the advocacy organizations that made it happen.

The most significant difference between the three state policies is their deadlines for utilities to fully replace the LSLs:

  • Illinois: range of 15 years to 50 years depending on a given utility’s number of LSLs.
  • New Jersey: 10-year deadline with an option to extend to 15 years
  • Michigan: 20-year deadline.

Read More »

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