For weeks now, we’ve been witnessing Congress go back and forth over what should be in or out of the reconciliation, or “Build Back Better,” bill which is a companion to the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill. While lawmakers face many tough choices, there are rumblings that funding to replace our country’s dangerous lead service lines may be on the chopping block. This would be unconscionable.
In a multi-trillion-dollar bill, $30 billion proposed in committee markup for lead service line replacement may seem like a small, expendable number, but the real-world outcome of slashing these funds would be devastating.
When I speak with my colleagues who work in the Great Lakes region, I hear horror story after horror story about the impacts of our failure to replace these lead pipes—a problem we’ve known about for decades.
The Great Lakes region has been synonymous with this crisis since Flint’s poisoned water made headlines globally in 2014. And while the people of Flint still struggle and some continue to rely on bottled water, another city in Michigan is gaining national attention due to dangerous amounts of lead flowing from faucets: Benton Harbor. The Benton Harbor City Commission declared a state of emergency this week in an effort to draw attention to the crisis and raise urgency in Washington about the need to replace lead drinking water pipes. City and state officials have known about problems with the water since 2018. Michigan Gov. Gretchen WhitmerGretchen WhitmerJudge orders pro-Trump election lawyers to pay 5,000 in sanctions Michigan Democrats resume push for gun control after school shooting Three dead, six wounded in Michigan school shooting MORE recently vowed to replace the town’s pipes within 18 months, but more financial support and action is needed.
Like Flint, Benton Harbor is a majority Black city and has been historically neglected in terms of infrastructure investment. This inequity cannot be ignored. Benton Harbor sits on the shores of the world’s largest surface fresh water system, the Great Lakes, while residents go without access to clean drinking water.
Zooming out from these two Michigan towns and looking at the rest of the Great Lakes region, Illinois and Ohio are #1 and #2 in the country, respectively, when it comes to the number of lead service lines still in use. Hundreds of communities across the region are at risk. Make no mistake: This is not something that we can get around to addressing someday. This is a public health emergency, and our inaction on lead service lines in the past decades has led to needless illness and death. Scientific and health studies have confirmed time and again that there is no safe level of lead that a human can consume. Water flowing through lead pipes is poisoning children in Benton Harbor, Flint and countless other cities around the Great Lakes and the nation. And it will continue to do so until we fix this problem.
We cannot afford to squander what could be a once in a generation opportunity to right this wrong. Members of Congress cannot settle for less than the $30 billion in funding for lead service line replacement that has been allocated in the Build Back Better bill. This funding, along with the $15 billion included in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, will help us meet President BidenJoe BidenManchin to vote to nix Biden's vaccine mandate for larger businesses Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight Senate cuts deal to clear government funding bill MORE’s goal of replacing all lead service lines nationally. And it will ensure that another generation of children aren't hurt by lead in their water.
Our leaders must not lose sight of the real lives that could be impacted by the stroke of a pen. The people of Benton Harbor, Flint and the Great Lakes region have waited long enough for help, and they will be watching.
Donald Jodrey is the director of Federal Relations for the Alliance for the Great Lakes.