There are 9.2 million lead pipes in the U.S. The once commonly-used metal can damage children’s developing brains, yet many cities have been slow to dig out these pipes.
It is often easier and cheaper to remove lead pipes when a city or utility is out working on and replacing water mains because crews have already excavated, and revealed the lead pipe that connects homes to the main. Sometimes, however, a city or town will take out only a section of the lead pipe during this work and that creates additional problems. The practice spikes lead levels. And the left-behind lead can continue leaching into drinking water.
There is $15 billion from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to help communities find and replace lead pipes. So this is an opportunity to scrutinize your community’s current lead pipe removal practices and look at how cities and towns are using the money to keep residents safe.
Here are some ideas for localizing the story:
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VIEW THE ESTIMATED NUMBER OF LEAD PIPES IN YOUR STATE
The Environmental Protection Agency recently released estimates of how many lead pipes there are in each state. Look on page 5 for a breakdown.
SEE HOW MUCH MONEY YOUR STATE IS GETTING
There is $15 billion set aside for finding and removing lead pipes in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. See how much money this will mean for your state in fiscal year 2023. Look at Attachment G on page 12.
DOES YOUR COMMUNITY REPLACE JUST PART OF THE PIPE?
The AP reached out to several communities to ask how they dealt with lead pipes during water main work. Some states like Michigan and Illinois have policies banning cities from taking out only part of the lead pipe during this work, but in many places, there is no state ban and communities set their own rules.
Frequently, part of the lead pipe is owned by the utility and the rest is the responsibility of the homeowner. These are commonly referred to as the public and private sides of the pipe. It’s important to ask about how the entire pipe is handled.
If the utility has already taken out the public side of the lead pipe but left the private side in place, you could ask how and when the utility plans to go back and remove the rest of the pipe and who has to pay. This situation does occur. The AP found it in Louisville, Kentucky, for example.
Small communities with fewer resources may have the hardest time replacing finding the resources to replace their pipes.
Here are the questions to ask utilities about whether they take out just part of the pipe:
— First, very roughly, how many lead pipes are there in your system? (If pipes are just private side, please provide a count of those, too.)
— Second: When your community does water main replacements, what is done when workers find lead service lines? Is the publicly-owned portion of the line replaced? Is just a piece of the lead pipe replaced near the water main? Or, is the entire lead pipe replaced?
— Third: Who is responsible for paying for the lead pipe replacement? Is it free for the homeowner/building owner? Do they have to pay for just the privately-owned part of the pipe? For the whole thing? What if the owner can’t afford to pay?
— And if there was a change in how this issue was handled in recent years, what was the change, when did it occur and why?
ASK LOCAL LEADERS ABOUT LEAD PIPE BASICS
The EPA is requiring cities and towns to locate and count their lead pipes. The inventory is necessary because many communities do not know where their lead pipes are.
Local leaders could be asked about their progress on the inventory and what the results are. When communities know more about their lead pipes, they are in a better position to take advantage of federal dollars available for lead removal projects. Each state’s preparation is different and their readiness matters.
Only a few of the worst communities have actually violated the EPA’s limits for lead in drinking water. Most are in compliance, but that doesn’t mean the water is safe for everyone. Lead pipes can still be a threat for some homes. With the current federal money, the push is to jumpstart efforts to get all of the pipes removed. So it may be worth asking how leaders plan to get them out, how expensive it will be and how long it will take.
The U.S. has roughly 9.2 million lead pipes. Lead is especially dangerous for young children. It can lower IQ and deprive kids of problem-solving skills. The Environmental Protection Agency says no amount is safe for kids.
But many communities have been slow to remove lead pipes that can leach into drinking water, even when it is easiest to replace them during water main work. Workers have been removing sections, disturbing the pipe and leaving the rest, which can spike lead levels.
The pipe sections that remain threaten tap water until they’re removed. The practice is also more expensive in the long run, since crews presumably will have to return someday.
READ MORE FROM AP:
Cover Photo: Richie Nero, of Boyle & Fogarty Construction, shows the the cross section of an original lead, residential water service line, at left, and the replacement copper line, at right, outside a home where service was getting upgraded, Thursday, June 29, 2023, in Providence, R.I. Health and environmental groups have been fighting for lead-free water to drink in Providence for at least a decade. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)