Environmental justice woes spring from lead pipe replacement

By Hannah Northey | 01/13/2022 01:22 PM EST

As a hole is being filled in, a piece of an old lead water pipe sits next to a new copper pipe.

As a hole is being filled in, a piece of an old lead water pipe sits next to a new copper pipe. Dave Wasinger/Lansing State Journal via AP

This story was updated at 2:44 p.m. EST.

A first-of-its-kind study offers fresh evidence that the widely used practice of removing only certain parts of lead service lines disproportionately plagues low-income, minority neighborhoods with drinking water contamination.

The findings are fueling calls for EPA to ensure billions of infrastructure dollars being doled out to utilities across the nation through state revolving funds are spent equitably and comply with long-standing federal civil rights laws.

“We think EPA needs to crack down and make sure states are affirmatively stopping the discrimination that can happen with these SRF monies,” said Tom Neltner, a senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund.

At issue is a peer-reviewed report, published in the online open source academic journal Sustainability, which found residents living in low-income Washington neighborhoods between 2009 and 2018 were less likely than their wealthier, white neighbors to pay for replacing full lead service lines. A private resident would have had to cough up more than $2,000 at the time to get the portion of their lead service line removed.

Digging up and replacing the aging water pipes connecting homes to massive water mains is critical because the conduits can leach lead, a neurotoxin, into drinking water and threaten the mental and behavioral development in children, as well as causing health effects in adults. EPA estimates there may be as many as 10 million lead services lines in the U.S., but public health advocates say the number is likely much higher.

Tackling only parts of such old water pipes has long raised concerns because the practice can actually accelerate the release of lead from corroding lines or disturb the coating on pipelines that normally protect against leaching.

While the case study focuses only on Washington, the research has far-reaching implications because the practice of utilities replacing only portions of lead service lines is widespread but poorly tracked, said Karen Baehler, associate dean of faculty and scholar in residence in the School of Public Affairs at American University, who led the research. The study was funded with a grant the Environmental Defense Fund obtained from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Baehler noted that just three states — Michigan, New Jersey and Illinois — have banned the practice. “Three states have banned the practice," she said. "Elsewhere, we think it could be up to 90 percent of utilities that use it.”

The study is novel in how it reached its conclusions and what it offers current policy discussions.

While there’s a large amount of literature on the science and impact of partial line replacement, there appears to be no research that looks at the effect of replacement patterns on equity using administrative data, said Baehler.

She hopes the Biden administration will consider the findings in considering how to move forward on a new Lead and Copper Rule, and as infrastructure dollars flow out of the agency. It’s especially critical, she noted, because EPA allowed a Trump-era Lead and Copper Rule to take effect that doesn’t ban the practice.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan when issuing the first tranche of infrastructure funds late last year — out of a total of $15 billion available in the package — urged states to prioritize spending in underserved communities burdened with failing systems and pollution that haven’t received their fair share of federal water infrastructure funding. Regan also laid out in his letter that EPA is providing technical assistance to help disadvantaged communities overcome barriers in applying for loans and grants, but it remains up to local and state officials to ensure those communities apply (E&E News PM, Dec. 2, 2021).

EDF’s Neltner said the case study provides one more incentive to ban the practice in its new Lead and Copper Rule, but also makes an even clearer case the agency must enforce long-standing civil rights federal laws that require any recipient of federal money to ensure there’s no discrimination when those dollars are spent.

Neltner pointed to a recent civil rights complaint that he and other environmental and public health advocates filed with EPA against a local water provider in Rhode Island, arguing the utility’s practice of removing partial lead service lines disproportionately increased the risk of lead exposure in drinking water for low-income residents of color (Greenwire, Jan. 7). Providence Water, which uses federal dollars through state revolving funds in the form of loans, maintains it is dedicated to removing lead service lines, working with state and federal experts, and providing financial support for low-income residents.

But Neltner said the practice of removing partial lines is discriminatory and EPA needs to step in, and that he asked the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, or NEJAC, last week to make the issue a priority.

Advocates say a provision in the Trump-era Lead and Copper Rule is also discriminatory, the so-called customer-initiated provision that allows residents to require a utility to replace a lead service line if they can pony up the money to replace the portion on their own property. But Neltner noted that utilities don’t have to comply with the rule for another three years under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and he’s hoping EPA as part of its revisions will address the issue.

“It’s a little hard to tell at this stage how far they want to go, but our point is the Civil Rights Act of 1964 already creates this obligation,” he said.

A spokesperson for EPA in an email said that the agency is aware of the practice of partial line replacement and that it can cause a short-term elevation of lead concentrations in drinking water and further extend lead health risks from service lines because a portion of the lead line remains in service. EPA said it "strongly discourages" water systems from using the practice.

"While the agency does not have an estimate of the number of partial lead service lines, we know that there is no safe level of lead exposure," said the spokesperson. "This is why President Biden has called for removing 100% of lead pipes. EPA is committed to using any and all regulatory and non-regulatory tools available to the agency and its federal partners to accelerate Lead Service Line Replacements."

EPA, he said, will consider lead service line replacement requirements as part of its rulemaking, and noted the agency has also determined there are a range of potential non-regulatory actions available to further reduce drinking water lead exposure.

‘Pretty significant gap’

Baehler’s team focused on Washington because, in addition to being the home of American University, the local water utility’s lead removal program mirrored typical programs being used across the nation.

At the time, the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water), the local utility, took two approaches to removing lead water pipes.

Under the first “customer-initiated” option, homeowners organized the replacements themselves or took the initiative to contact DC Water to send a crew to conduct a full replacement. The second avenue involved the utility offering to replace the full service line while conducting other planned work on the street.

Researchers found that while the utility had done a good job of replacing the pipes, only replacing parts of the lines also had negative, unintended consequences.

Using regression modeling and geocoding, researchers analyzed 2010 census tracts in Washington. When comparing a neighborhood with a median income level of about $76,000 annually and the lowest median household income of about $15,000 annually, they found full replacements of lead service lines would increase by more than 50 percent in the wealthier and less diverse neighborhoods.

“This means that if you took the lowest income census tract and you brought their income up to that median level, you’d potentially get 50 to 60 percent more full replacement in that census tract,” said Baehler. “It’s a pretty significant gap.”

Authors concluded that “inequities identified in this study raise serious questions about which population groups have been waiting longest to receive a proper environmental remedy for the problem of lead risk in drinking water, both in Washington, D.C. and potentially nationwide.”

The study period ended in 2018, as did the practice of replacing partial lines in the nation’s capital.

That’s because in 2019, the Washington City Council adopted and approved funding for a new approach to replacing lead service lines, according to the report, imposing a new scheme that required the city to pay to ensure more equal access to fully replacing lead lines.

Betsy Southerland, a former top EPA water staffer now with the Environmental Protection Network, agreed with Neltner that the Trump-era regulation requires water systems to develop replacement programs no later than three years after the rule takes effect.

That includes crafting a strategy for accommodating customers who can’t afford to replace their part of the line — since the rule doesn’t require utilities to pay for private lines — and a strategy for prioritizing replacement.

For the coming fiscal year, she said, EPA has $25 million in Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act funding that could be used for private line replacement. Although facing a rocky future, the "Build Back Better" package also has up to $10 billion more that could be used for removing lead services lines, as well as tens of billions of dollars for public housing and federally assisted housing.

“All this means that EPA should focus on getting funds to pay for private line replacement where homeowners don’t have the ability to pay,” Southerland wrote in an email.