Advocates, lawmakers question White House lead pipe assurances

The White House’s insistence that the infrastructure package going through the Senate will solve the nation’s problem of lead contamination in drinking water has been confusing and disappointing to allies — from environmental justice advocates to some Democrats and unions.

The account would provide a committed $15 billion to remove lead service lines, which falls short of the $45 billion President Biden originally requested in his initial infrastructure pitch and job plans. But the White House says water companies could also tap $11 billion as general funding for drinking water projects, marking a historic investment in clean water.

“As a critical part of what will be the largest clean drinking water investment in U.S. history, the bipartisan infrastructure bill provides more than $11 billion in additional general drinking water funding that states can apply to completely replace all lead pipes and service lines in the country. , for a total of more than $26 billion,” a White House spokesman said in an email yesterday.

“That’s nearly half of the clean drinking water deal’s full resources, reflecting what a driving priority this is. The bipartisan agreement will eliminate all lead drinking water and service lines in the United States with this unprecedented funding – period,” the spokesperson continued.

Proponents are calling for a $45 billion special pot to remove millions of lead pipelines that supply water across the country and warn that failing to meet that goal will force utilities to take a piecemeal approach that could put the burden on — or leave it completely behind. – communities of color that are at higher risk of lead exposure.

Proponents are also making holes in the Biden administration’s claim that the roughly $11 billion the bill would inject into the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund could be tapped for the removal of lead pipes, as the money is also needed for projects such as replacing water pipes and filtering emerging contaminants.

“We know it’s going to cost $45 billion, it’s not going to cost $15” [billion], it’s not going to cost $25 [billion] …. study after study has shown this,” said Bob Keefe, executive director of Environmental Entrepreneurs, of E2. “Otherwise we choose which children get clean water and which don’t.”

‘A fraction of what we need’

Keefe joined Democratic Representative Paul Tonko of New York and the United Association of Union Plumbers & Pipefitters (UA) yesterday in releasing a report that outlined why $45 billion is needed to remove what the EPA estimates are 10 million lead pipelines winding through the country, noting environmental groups say there may be more than 12 million.

They emphasize that the health risks are great. Lead in drinking water has been linked to negative health effects that disproportionately burden children, including behavioral and learning difficulties, lower IQ, hyperactivity, growth retardation, hearing problems and anemia.

The report’s authors noted that EPA estimates it could cost up to $12,300 to replace an individual lead service line, while the average cost is around $4,700 — and that translates into Biden’s $45 billion initial price tag.

“Given this average cost estimate and the 9.7 million pipes, the total replacement cost is $45.7 billion,” the report authors wrote. “Of course, if there really are 12 million lead service lines, the total cost would far exceed that number.”

The report found that investing the full $45 billion would create more than 56,000 jobs — including nearly 30,000 direct jobs in construction, plumbing, pipe fitting and operating heavy equipment that would last more than a decade — and boost the economy. inject with $104 billion.

Tonko, chairman of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, warned that “the luck of the draw” will avoid or burden children with lead-contaminated pipes. Congress, he said, should not “leave it to a zip code” to determine which pipelines will be removed.

“I’m afraid if this is a fraction of what we need it will be the ones who will use power politics to get their investment and we won’t invest in all situations,” Tonko said.

Focus on reconciliation

Dan Hartnett, chief advocacy officer for the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, said it is theoretically true that $11.7 billion in infrastructure bill that would go to the Drinking Water State Revolving Funds could be used to replace lead service lines. .

But that would take away the critical water system upgrades across the country, including plumbing replacement and advanced treatment and filtration to address emerging contaminants.

“So any DWSRF money that is being set aside for lead service line replacement will not be available for these other purposes,” Harnett said in an email. “It really is a zero-sum game.”

Sources have also noted that about half of the $15 billion will need to be repaid, putting a heavier burden on low-income communities (E&E Daily, Aug. 2). The lack of lead-focused funding in the infrastructure bill is helping to shift focus to Democrats’ budget-clearance plans to push through more of their priorities and avoid a Senate filibuster.

Tonko said he has spoken with leadership that Congress needs a full pot of money while Congress discusses reconciliation and is open to considering other studies quantifying the amount of money needed to run all lead service lines. to delete.

But he stressed that whatever dollar amount is reached, there must be enough money to remove all lead service lines and that children are most vulnerable to lead exposure. “If kids aren’t valued in this outcome, I have serious questions about who we’re approaching this issue with,” he said.

Unions said yesterday they are also aggressively lobbying Congress and the White House to voice their concerns, warning that utilities without full funding will be forced to choose who receives the funding.

“Hopefully when they see them pick and choose who gets the money… they’ll appropriate more money,” said Tom Bigley, UA director of plumbing services. “But I think $45 billion is on the low side.”

Sandra Purohit, E2’s director of federal advocacy, said utilities with their own unique card capabilities are currently receiving and distributing funds for the removal of lead service lines in a patchy fashion as they move forward with various projects.

“One of the problems is that there hasn’t been significant federal funding to make a substantial dent,” she said.

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