Lead pipe replacement funds in bipartisan deal draw skepticism

Advocates and some Democratic lawmakers are voicing skepticism about whether funding in the bipartisan infrastructure deal is enough to tackle the country’s lead contamination problem.

The White House insists that the $15 billion in the bill, potentially combined with a separate funding source, is sufficient. But others argue that replacing all of the lead service lines in the country requires three times the dedicated amount.

The White House insists that the $15 billion in the bill is sufficient, but others argue that replacing all of the lead service lines in the country requires three times that amount.

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“We shouldn’t settle for only some children being protected from lead,” Rep. Paul TonkoPaul David TonkoUsing shared principles to guide our global and national energy policy WHIP LIST: How House Democrats, Republicans say they'll vote on infrastructure bill Manchin puts foot down on key climate provision in spending bill MORE (D-N.Y.) said during a press conference this past week.

“Whether it is through a bipartisan deal or through reconciliation, we need to secure as much funding as necessary to fulfill President BidenJoe BidenBiden invokes Trump in bid to boost McAuliffe ahead of Election Day Business lobby calls for administration to 'pump the brakes' on vaccine mandate Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Afghanistan reckoning shows no signs of stopping MORE’s commitment to getting the lead out of our drinking water.”

Half of the funding to replace lead-tainted water service lines would come via grants or forgivable loans, while the other half distributed would need to be repaid to the federal government.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates there are between 6 million to 10 million lead service lines in the country, while the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) puts the number between 9.7 million and 12.8 million.

According to the EPA, the average cost of replacing just one line is $4,700. The cost of replacing all lead lines would range from $28 billion to $47 billion based on the agency’s other estimates, or as high as $60 billion using the NRDC numbers.

That’s in line with projections from the American Water Works Association, which said replacement costs could reach $60 billion.

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Meanwhile, an analysis released this past week by Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) and the United Association of Union Plumbers and Pipefitters used the 9.7 million number to estimate that overall the cost could be $45.7 billion, the amount Democrats initially wanted to replace the pipes.

President Biden proposed $45 billion for pipe replacement in his American Jobs Plan, and a recent House-passed infrastructure bill would provide $45 billion as well.

In a July 21 letter, more than 100 House Democrats also indicated support for the $45 billion funding level.

“There’s a big gap between $15 billion and $45 billion,” said Sandra Purohit, director of federal advocacy at E2. “I will also say that the $45 billion is a conservative number and that there’s still a huge unknown in terms of what the actual total survey of lead lines will come up with.”

The White House has argued that the $1 trillion bipartisan package will result in the complete replacement of the country’s lead service lines, and has pointed to an additional $11 billion for general drinking water funding that it said could be applied toward lead pipe replacement.

A White House spokesperson said that combined, these totals make up “nearly half of the deal’s full resources for clean drinking water, reflecting what a driving priority this is.”

“The bipartisan agreement will eliminate all lead drinking water pipes and service lines in the United States with this unprecedented funding — full stop,” the spokesperson said.

But Erik Olson, senior strategic director of the NRDC’s health and food, healthy people and thriving communities program, expressed skepticism that most, let alone all, of the $11 billion investment would go toward lead pipes.

“There are a lot of projects already in the pipeline that are awaiting funding. The vast majority of those are not for lead service line replacement,” Olson said.

“The idea that there’s any chance that even most of the $11 billion that are in the bipartisan deal are going to go to lead service lines is essentially nil. There are a lot of other urgent needs.”

Mike Keegan, a regulatory policy analyst at the National Rural Water Association, said he supports the $15 billion funding because he believes that replacing lead lines could become cheaper in the coming years.

“By them going through and implementing the money, it’s going to improve the...process of how do you find lead service lines. Hopefully it’ll make it cheaper. They’ll find innovations on removing lead service lines,” Keegan said.

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For some, the different funding mechanisms are cause for concern.

Olson said the fact that some communities will need to repay their lead pipe removal funding gives wealthy areas an advantage over low-income groups.

“If it’s loans, especially the lower-income communities or communities with a lot of low-income people, are not going to be able to take advantage of that money,“ he said.

Olson also called for the addition of a prohibition of partial lead service line replacement, saying that reactions between metals can cause additional corrosion, increasing the amount of lead that makes its way into drinking water.

Lead exposure can cause a range of health issues including brain and kidney damage and infertility and is particularly harmful to children.

During the Flint water crisis in Michigan, water that wasn’t adequately treated caused corrosion to lead pipes and resulted in the substance leaching into the water.

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Proponents of more funding say that if they don’t get additional money in the infrastructure package making its way through the Senate, the subsequent $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” bill may provide an avenue to boost the dollar amount to $45 billion.

That measure, which would advance through the budget reconciliation process, would allow Democrats to sidestep a GOP filibuster.

“We’d like to see the full $45 billion. If not in this bipartisan deal, the remainder needs to be included in reconciliation,” Olson said.