The fact that lead is a highly poisonous metal and can affect almost every organ in the body and the nervous system is not news to most, especially since the Flint, Michigan, water crisis five years ago. For decades, we have known that children under 6 and developing fetuses are most susceptible to lead exposure because they absorb more lead than adults and their brains and nervous systems are still developing. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that lead in drinking water can be 20% or more of a person’s lead exposure. We need to tackle the lead problem at its source. The most effective way to limit exposure to lead in drinking water is to remove lead service lines (LSLs). These pipes connect a home or other older buildings to the public water main line.
There is no safe level of lead in drinking water. Lower-income communities, communities with higher populations of people of color, and with large immigrant populations and English Language Learners often do not have their lead lines replaced as quickly as wealthier, predominantly white communities. As a result, lead poisoning is especially bad in these communities. It’s a huge health, race, and economic justice issue because if a person has lead poisoning it can have effects on their learning and economic opportunities for the rest of their life.
Safe and affordable drinking water is a basic human right, but it is not free to ensure that everyone has access. We want communities to be proactive about lead service line removal, but we recognize that it is not cheap. EPA estimates that it will cost as much as $45 billion across the country to fully replace all LSLs. In Minnesota, the Department of Health estimates it will cost as much as $350 million. For an individual homeowner, depending on multiple factors, the cost to remove an LSL could range between $3,000 and $11,000, which is a huge barrier for many people, especially those with lower or fixed incomes. EPA’s environmental justice analysis of the EPA Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) proposal found that requiring customers to contribute to the cost of replacement has a disparate impact on people of color and low-income communities. We should be working for federal funding that covers the entire cost of lead service line replacement, whether the pipe is under public or private property, to remove that built-in inequity, and help ensure equal opportunity for all Americans.
The cost of lead service line replacement has been the biggest barrier to both decisive federal regulation and proactive water system and community action. However, there might finally be light at the end of the lead pipe. The Biden administration and U.S. House have both proposed investing $45 billion over 10 years to solve this problem and help states and cities fully remove all LSLs. The U.S. Senate’s proposal is much lower, at $100 million per year for the next 5 years. If it costs $45 billion in total, and the Senate wants to only invest $100 million per year, it will take 450 years to solve this environmental justice problem.
We know that lead is in some people’s drinking water now. If we wait longer to replace LSLs, Minnesotans will continue to experience more health problems, some of which are lifelong. How can we justify waiting? Unlike many other pollution problems, this is one that we can easily identify and fix – for a price. Families who are experiencing health problems because of lead in their drinking water cannot wait 450 years, or 10 years for that matter, nor should they need to.
For too long, communities of color and poverty have been excluded from the benefits of many of our water investments. We need to pass policies and funding to remove all LSLs from all homes and buildings in Minnesota and across the U.S. This would include conducting an inventory to determine the extent of the problem, increased testing of water and blood to find hot spots where lead poisoning is occurring, and prioritizing the removal of pipes in these areas. We need funding to remove all LSLs, and policies to ensure it is easy and equitable so all families can have access to safe and affordable drinking water. We need the U.S. Senate to follow the U.S. House and Biden administration and pass the $45 billion in funding to make sure that all states, counties and cities can afford to remove all of these potentially poisonous pipes.
Steve Schultz is the water program coordinator for Clean Water Action Minnesota.
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