EDF Health

Selected tag(s): Lead in Drinking Water

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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Momentum is building to fund lead pipe replacement across the country: New video

Joanna Slaney, Legislative Director and Sam Lovell, Communications Manager. 

As Congress pursues infrastructure legislation, it’s clear that replacing lead pipes is a priority issue. This is welcome news for our health, the country’s infrastructure, and the economy. We are glad to see the attention on this issue from Congress and from the Administration with the inclusion of funding to fully replace lead pipes in the President’s American Jobs Plan.

And it’s no wonder there is growing interest in this initiative, the latest polling from the Navigator shows support for funding lead pipe replacement at 83% nationally – including 73% of Republicans, 80% of Independents, and 91% of Democrats. This echoes earlier polls which have found similar overwhelming bipartisan support

As EDF has written before, a $45 billion investment in lead pipe replacement over ten years would:

  • Protect public health by enabling water systems around the country to quickly begin eliminating the LSLs to protect residents.
  • More than pay for itself. Fully replacing lead service lines across the country would yield more than $205 billion in societal benefits over 35 years — a 450% return on the investment – due to prevented heart disease deaths from adult lead exposure.
  • Permanently upgrade infrastructure by facilitating critical upgrades to water distribution systems in a way that protects residents from increased lead in their drinking water when the LSL is disturbed.
  • Reduce disparities by enabling utilities to fully replace LSLs, thereby resolving equity concerns that utilities currently face in replacing the lead pipe on private property.
  • Create jobs for the plumbers and contractors who will perform the LSL replacements. This is shovel-ready work that involves construction and plumbing crews conducting the replacement.

With bills in both the House and the Senate focusing on funding lead pipe replacement, it’s important we keep pushing to ensure the federal government follows through on getting the lead out of our drinking water. 

See EDF’s new video that explains why lead service line replacement is important, and why it’s a no-brainer for the federal government to invest in.

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The fight to end lead poisoning in Rhode Island: A conversation with Laura Brion

The most common causes of lead poisoning in children in the US are lead-based paint and contaminated dust, which are mainly found in older housing. When present, lead pipes also present the single largest source of lead exposure through water. In Rhode Island, an estimated 80% of the housing was built before 1978, meaning it’s more likely to have lead-based paint hazards and lead pipes and put families, especially children, living in the homes at risk.

The Childhood Lead Action Project was founded in 1992 to take on this challenge, with the mission of eliminating childhood lead poisoning in Rhode Island through education, parent support, and advocacy. The organization does it all: workshops and educational outreach for a wide range of audiences, municipal and state-level advocacy to push proactive policies, grassroots campaigning, and more.

I sat down with Laura Brion, who started as a community organizer with the Childhood Lead Action Project and is now the Executive Director, to learn about her journey into the lead poisoning prevention world and what she sees ahead for her organization’s and community’s fight.   

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

Read More »

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