When President Biden unveiled his new administration’s priorities, he set his sights on replacing every lead water pipe in America in 10 years as part of his big infrastructure package. In the proposal, the administration calls for $45 billion in funding to achieve this goal. We know that lead pipes are widespread and are used in every state in America and there is no safe level of lead. But most importantly, these lead pipes are a major threat to the health and safety of our children and communities. Replacing every lead pipe in America is one big step in the effort to remove this threat. A down payment to ensure safer drinking water is long-overdue, and it would go a long way to help eliminate a potent and pervasive neurotoxin from our drinking water.
The $45 billion is a rough estimate of what it would take to replace the nation’s lead service lines that we are aware of. According to an NRDC study, there is an alarming lack of accurate state-provided data, which leads us to believe this is likely a low estimate. Essentially, most states do not have data on the number of lead water pipes in their state. This “nothing to see here” approach is ideal if you don’t want to spend money fixing a problem you don’t think you have—or worse, that you suspect you have but choose to ignore. However, lead doesn’t stop existing and harming communities just because you aren’t looking for it.
Too often, the communities that are most impacted by lead in drinking water are home to people of color. Here in Illinois, a study by the Metropolitan Planning Council found that communities with the most lead service lines house 65% of Illinois’ Black and Latinx population vs 30% of the White population, clearly demonstrating that people of color are overrepresented in communities with the most lead service lines. Any reduction of the proposed $45 billion currently being debated in Congress could mean that even fewer resources will go to the communities that need it most, perpetuating a continued environmental injustice lasting for generations.
We know that lead is a dangerous toxin that can permanently damage brains and bodies. That’s one of the reasons the U.S. (largely in response to a 1972 lawsuit and pressure from NRDC) has taken steps to eliminate it from gasoline in the 1970s. But why is it that we can get the lead out of gas, which helps us go, but not drinking water, which is essential for kids to grow? The answer seems like a no-brainer to me.
As the proposal is being debated, my hope is that these members of Congress will remember what’s at stake and the legacy we are trying to leave for our children. As we’ve seen from places like Flint, Newark, Pittsburgh, and too many other communities, the pervasiveness of lead is real, but the problem is fixable. Having the money to fix this problem once and for all will go a long way toward eliminating lead in drinking water.
This is the time for Congress and the Biden Administration to go big and fully fund the replacement of all lead service lines in America because the cost of going home to a house with lead pipes could be even more expensive than we realize.