Infrastructure Agreement Includes Replacing 100% of Nation’s Lead Pipes

Infrastructure agreement calls for lead pipe replacement

According to a White House memo, the new infrastructure bill will remove and replace all of the nation's lead pipes and water service lines for up to 10 million homes and 400,000 schools and daycares. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the provision would create jobs and replace "100%" of lead water pipes. The package will dedicate $55 billion toward water infrastructure and could alleviate pressure on cities like Chicago, which has been struggling to pay for expensive replacements on their own.

Why This Matters

A study from Healthy Babies Bright Futures found that 80% of American households contain some amount of lead in their drinking water, and 40% have levels above the American Academy of Pediatrics' (AAP) recommendations.

Lead piping has also long been an issue of environmental justice. Black children living in poverty are twice as likely to have elevated lead levels in their blood compared to poor white and Hispanic children.

But the EPA's "action level" or lead limit would need to be reduced by 70% to prevent poisoning among children. In 2019, Trump's EPA proposed a rule that reduced how quickly cities must replace lead piping. Now, cities (like Chicago) are struggling to find the resources to replace hundreds of thousands of lead service lines.

Leading the Way

The $579 billion bipartisan infrastructure agreement will include $55 billion for water infrastructure. Resources for pipe replacement will be distributed through water programs and grants administered by the EPA to cities, states, and public water utilities. The timeline to replace the nation’s lead piping is still to be determined. "The details are very important here. It needs to all be written into the final legislation of the bill, but the president is clearly eager to get that done as quickly as possible," said Psaki.

For many cities with lead pipes, it's not just water infrastructure that needs repairing -- it's public trust as well.

Newark, which once had some of the highest rates of lead in the nation, has embarked on an aggressive replacement strategy to do just that. Its plan includes replacing the pipes at no cost to residents and providing free lead testing kits.

CBS: Newark residents outraged after testing reveals water lead contamination, November 1, 2018.

Flint, Michigan is now wrapping up its replacement program, and advocates hope that the work of these communities can guide federal policy. Erik Olson, senior strategic director for health at the Natural Resources Defense Council said, "Flint's brave residents have set in motion a fight for the right to safe drinking water that is so righteous and powerful, President Biden is proposing to remove every lead water pipe in America."

The Big If

In order for this money to be allocated, the bipartisan infrastructure framework put forth by the White House and a group of senators would have to become legislation: passed by Congress, and signed by the president. The bill is far from being a done deal and Senator Mitch McConnell has already actively attacked the framework, putting into question whether members of his party will uphold their end of the bargain.

NRDCflix: Safe Drinking Water is A Right, December 9, 2020.

60 Minutes: The legacy of the Flint water crisis, January 12, 2021.