The Biden administration wants to take a huge swing at the problem of lead water pipes, proposing to replace 100% of the nation’s lead pipes and service lines.
The American Jobs Plan released Wednesday will reduce lead exposure in 400,000 schools and child care centers and 6 to 10 million homes, and create union and prevailing wage jobs, according to the administration. To fund the plan, Biden said he’ll ask Congress to invest $45 billion in the EPA’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and in Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (WIIN) grants.
Several advocates praised the plan, with Environment America’s Clean Water Program Director John Rumpler calling it “the single greatest step we’ve seen this century to reverse lead contamination of our drinking water.”
But others say the plan still isn’t big enough, in part because the full magnitude of the nation’s lead pipe problems is unknown.
“Some lines are easier to fix than others because they’re just underground,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But some are in houses, which is harder because you have to tear the wall out, and main lines can be mixtures of different composites and materials. No one knows the scope of the problem. So it’s just unlikely that that’s enough money.”
Records of lead pipes are shaky at best, offering little help, added Marc Edwards, a civil and environmental engineering professor who specializes in water infrastructure issues at Virginia Tech University.
Biden’s plan outlines a total of $111 billion for water infrastructure.
It calls for modernizing water systems “by scaling up existing, successful programs,” including by providing $56 billion in grants and low-cost flexible loans to states, tribes, territories, and disadvantaged communities.
The plan also calls for $10 billion to monitor and remediate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in drinking water and to invest in rural small water systems and household well and wastewater systems, including drainage fields.
The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that maintaining and improving the nation’s wastewater and drinking water infrastructure over the next 20 years will cost about $750 billion.
‘A Huge Lift’
Innovative financing approaches and a call for public-private partnerships to get the work done “would be a huge lift,” said Matt Kline, a partner with O’Melveny & Myers LLP. There’s a large pent-up demand to make water infrastructure investments, he said.
Fixing hazardous and leaky water pipes “is not just good common sense, it’s good business sense,” said Bob Keefe, executive director of E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs).
“Somebody has to dig up those aging pipelines and replace them with modern ones that don’t make our kids sick and that will provide the lifeline for clean water to consumers and businesses alike,” Keefe said. “That means jobs—good paying jobs that in many cases also happen to be stable union jobs.”
The EPA has estimated there are between 6.5 million and 10 million lead service lines around the country, and the average replacement cost is about $4,700 per line.
The agency has allotted about $1.1 billion each year to states since 2017 as part of the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, and about $1.6 billion annually for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund over the same period.
The Biden plan also requires a long-term commitment from various parties. Realistically, it will take 10 years to fulfill the plan “if we really put our minds to it,” Edwards said.
Further complicating matters is the fact that water systems alone can’t replace all the nation’s publicly and privately owned lead service lines, said Dianne VanDe Hei, CEO of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies.
That work “requires the consent and cooperation of the homeowner, who is typically responsible for the cost of replacing their privately-owned portion of the line,” she said.
Many water utilities offer assistance or payment plans to ease the costs on homeowners, but “ultimately the replacement of 100 percent of the nation’s lead service lines will require each and every homeowner with a privately-owned lead line to work with their local water system to accomplish the job,” VanDe Hei said.
Nevertheless, “getting serious about full replacement of lead service lines is long overdue,” Edwards said. “This has been a scourge in this country for over 100 years.”
States and localities are the primary owners of most of the nation’s infrastructure and have had to fund lead pipe replacements themselves for years, said Joseph Kane, a senior research associate at the Brookings Institution.
For them, “getting some greater certainty from Washington is a good thing,” Kane said.
The Biden plan will bring the most benefits to environmental justice communities, Edwards said.
“They’re spending a lot of money on bottled water and filters,” he said. “And they are the ones that can least afford it. This is a very serious societal problem that affects public health and undermines trust in one of our most basic necessities, which is drinking water.”
Courts, Congress Involved
Meanwhile, a group of states are seeking a federal appeals court’s review of the EPA’s latest regulations for lead and copper drinking water pipelines.
In December, the agency put out a rule to reduce the percentage of a water system’s lead pipes that must be replaced each year. Nine states and the District of Columbia asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to vacate certain aspects of the rule.
Lawmakers already have started work on legislation to invest in safer drinking water and replace harmful infrastructure.
House Energy and Commerce Democrats earlier this month unveiled a $300 billion infrastructure package (H.R. 1848) that includes language authorizing $22.5 billion over the next few years for replacing lead service lines in drinking water through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on March 24 unanimously advanced the bipartisan Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act of 2021 (S. 914), which would invest more than $35 billion in water resource development projects across the country, according to a summary of the bill. That legislation includes a provision to reauthorize EPA’s lead reduction projects grant program and increase its funding level to $100 million annually through fiscal year 2026.
The legislation is “so important to my home state,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) during the markup. Illinois has “exponentially more lead water lines than any other state in the nation,” and “we are also a state that sees significant injustice when it comes to infrastructure and environmental injustice.”
Brookings’ Kane characterized the Biden plan as “positioning” in advance of congressional action.
“There’s a lot of good, needed investments in the infrastructure bill, but simply positioning the need to do this is different from actually getting it across the finish line,” he said.