Nearly two dozen environmental, health, consumer and water utility groups are uniting to help communities replace old lead pipes that are the primary culprit behind the lead contamination of millions of Americans' drinking water.
The Lead Service Line Replacement Collaborative won’t change out the pipes itself. But starting this week, it will provide communities with advice and tools to speed up pipe replacement.
Organizers say the effort was inspired in part by a USA TODAY Network investigation that found excessive levels of lead in almost 2,000 water systems spanning all 50 states. The reporting also revealed a double standard that leaves Americans served by small utilities especially vulnerable to lead-tainted tap water. The primary source of the toxin is old lead water pipes, and communities and homeowners, especially those in small, rural communities, have struggled with the cost of replacing them.
“You showed (lead in water) was a broader problem that reached beyond Flint,” said Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director for the Environmental Defense Fund, a Collaborative member. “We had all sort of suspected this, but we didn’t have compelling evidence in front of us.”
Starting with $300,000 in foundation funding, the Collaborative aims to help community leaders and utilities by:
• Launching a website this week to provide utilities information on cost-effective, safe pipe replacement options, how to pay for them and how to engage with customers;
• Providing technical assistance for pilot projects;
• Sharing lessons learned and recognizing successful programs.
“It’s a matter of helping communities with a roadmap of how to move forward,” Neltner said.
An estimated 7.3 million homes are connected to their utilities’ water mains by individual lead service lines — pipes carrying water from mains under the street onto people’s property and into their homes. Experts liken them to "lead straws” because the brain-damaging toxin can leach from the pipes into water. The estimated cost of replacing these old pipes nationally is $30 billion or more.
Federal regulations currently consider lead service line replacement a last resort. Utilities aren’t required to replace pipes unless more than 10% of tap-water samples across a utility's system show lead levels above 15 parts per billion and efforts to control corrosion with chemicals fail. USA TODAY found thousands of small utilities skip tests or don't do them properly and more than 100 utilities didn't promptly start treatment plans after finding excessive lead.
The creation of the Collaborative “is a recognition it’s going to have to be an all-hands-on-deck approach to getting the lead service lines out,” said Greg Kail, communications director for the American Water Works Association, a Collaborative member that includes public water utilities.
Neltner said some members of the Collaborative were represented on a working group of the National Drinking Water Advisory Council making recommendations to the EPA about lead regulations. A "concept paper" laying out the Collaborative's purpose says it's focused on supporting local actions, not on EPA's revisions of the United States' drinking water regulations.
The group's concept paper also says pipe replacement plans should benefit all households regardless of income, race or ethnicity. But as for how much of the cost homeowners should pay compared to the utilities, Neltner said, “it’s going to be a community-by-community decision.”
Madison, Wis., which has replaced more than 8,000 pipes since 2001, came up with a compromise on that issue. That city required homeowners to replace the portion of the lead pipe on their properties, but offered to pay half of the costs — up to $1,000. The average homeowner paid $675.
Queen Zakia Shabazz, CEO of Collaborative member United Parents Against Lead, said failing to deal with lead contamination endangers millions. Doctors found high levels of lead in her 22-year-old son's blood when he was 2, and he suffered cognitive deficits, impulsivity and dental problems. She said health officials traced his lead poisoning to paint and soil, but they never tested tap water in their rented home, which she suspects had lead pipes.
“Flint can happen again, and we need to prevent that,” said Shabazz, of the Richmond, Va., area. “We know lead causes permanent and irreversible brain damage. … And once a child is damaged, there’s no coming back from it.”