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Numerous cities are excavating water mains but leaving hazardous lead pipes untouched

by Chloe Baker
5 comments
lead pipe replacement

When Prandy Tavarez and his spouse were preparing for the arrival of their baby, they purchased a four-bedroom house in a neatly maintained neighborhood filled with century-old residences. They embarked on making it their own, stripping off wallpaper, enhancing the electrical systems, and swapping out windows covered in lead-laced paint, a powerful neurotoxin that could impair children’s brain development.

However, lead didn’t only lurk in the paint. The pipeline supplying water to their home was composed of the same material. For years, Providence’s tap water had been fraught with perilous lead levels. Hence, it was not entirely unexpected when a construction team arrived in 2008 to remove the pipe, only to leave a portion of it buried.

“They applied a superficial solution,” Tavarez remarked.

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Nationwide, utility companies have been neglecting to remove lead pipes when carrying out water main operations, even when such times present the easiest opportunity for removal. The situation worsens when sections are eliminated, leaving the rest in a disturbed state that could elevate lead levels and cause lasting damage. An investigation by The Big Big News revealed these unsettling findings.

“Abandoning lead pipes should have ceased long ago,” said Yanna Lambrinidou, a medical anthropologist at Virginia Tech and co-founder of the Campaign for Lead Free Water. Lead is particularly harmful to young children, potentially reducing IQ and impairing problem-solving skills. The Environmental Protection Agency has declared that no amount is safe for children. According to Lambrinidou, utilities have been attempting to cut costs and evade accountability.

Lambrinidou considers the partial replacements deeply unethical because they represent a conscious decision by governmental bodies to keep residents vulnerable to ongoing exposure risks.

The remaining sections can contaminate tap water until completely removed. This practice also increases long-term costs, as teams will likely have to return for full replacements eventually.

Various cities claim they can leave the pipes and utilize chemical treatments instead, but this is not entirely reliable. The Biden administration has expressed its intent to replace all 9.2 million lead pipes in the U.S. Even cities committed to lead pipe removal cite a lack of resources and obstructive local regulations as challenges.

However, cities such as Buffalo, New York, Lincoln, Nebraska, and even Detroit have demonstrated a different approach. Despite recent bankruptcy proceedings, Detroit’s leaders decided in 2018 to replace all lead pipes whenever water mains were worked on.

“We are safeguarding the intellectual potential of the next generation of Detroit residents,” asserted Sam Smalley, COO of Detroit’s water supplier. If a utility avoids full lead pipe replacement, it’s often because they “lack genuine commitment to it,” he added.

Though this has not been an easy feat for Detroit, city officials have sought state and federal funds to manage water bills, organized neighborhood meetings, and distributed water filters. Due to these efforts, they claim that residents have granted contractors permission to remove lead pipes from their properties. If a resident refuses, their water supply is disconnected.

Despite the recognized risks of lead exposure, other cities have made different choices, leaving hazardous lead pipes underground. Experts estimate this negligence to have occurred hundreds of thousands of times in places like Providence, Chicago, and others, and it continues in Oklahoma City, Allentown, Pennsylvania, Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee, and St. Louis.

Recently, an influx of funds and heightened awareness of lead pipe dangers have prompted some cities to end this practice. Yet, it remains lawful.

PROVIDENCE’S PROTRACTED BATTLE

In 1991, the Environmental Protection Agency initially imposed lead limits on drinking water, mandating utilities to replace entire lengths of lead pipes when water exceeded those limits, with a few exceptions.

The American Water Works Association, representing utilities, contested this replacement mandate, arguing it didn’t sufficiently consider public input. A federal appeals court upheld this view in 1994.

Consequently, the EPA “completely capitulated,” according to Erik Olson, an attorney involved in the case with the Natural Resources Defense Council, and only demanded partial replacements when lead levels were high.

This decision would prove consequential. In 2005, Providence Water altered its chemical treatment, causing lead levels to surpass EPA limits.

This initiated the removal requirement, but not for entire pipes. This raised a pervasive issue across the country: divided ownership of lead pipes. In cities like Providence, utilities own part of the pipeline leading to houses, with homeowners owning the rest.

Providence adopted the stance of only removing the city-owned part, leaving homeowners to fund the removal of the remaining portion. However, with costs running into thousands of dollars, most could not afford to.

By 2011, EPA scientists had expressed their views, stating this method was ineffective in reducing lead levels.

During these years, the lead contamination in Providence water had reached crisis levels, violating EPA limits in 14 out of 17 years—a notably poor record for a major city. Regardless of evidence showing partial replacements as ineffective and potentially escalating lead levels in drinking water, local officials continued this practice when working on water mains, only removing all if the homeowner footed the bill.

Activists have accused Providence Water of establishing a two-tiered system: one for individuals who could afford safe water and another for those who couldn’t.

Colleen Colarusso, who bought a house on a steep slope overlooking a bustling Providence street in 2019, halted her water consumption after tests revealed lead levels over twice the federal limit. She spent on five-gallon water deliveries and invested $3,500 to install a copper line to her house.

“I don’t want that in my body,” she asserted.

Yet, in a neighborhood of tightly-packed two- and three-story apartment buildings, juxtaposed with modest single-family homes, city records indicate a lead pipe likely runs beneath Richard Charlton’s property.

Charlton, who cannot afford pipe replacement, insists the city should shoulder the responsibility for taxpayers. He’s more concerned about maintaining his fragile heating system and replacing his roof.

“I’m still struggling to get by,” he admitted.

WATER UTILITIES’ RESPONSIBILITIES

The responsibility of removing lead pipes doesn’t solely rest with the utility, but also individuals and government, according to Steve Via, director of government relations at the AWWA. Divided ownership of lead pipes continues to be “a barrier to full lead service line replacement today.” In many communities, local regulations prohibit expenditure on private property upgrades, creating impediments to the work, Via added.

Ricky Caruolo, Providence Water General Manager, argued that lead pipe replacements would necessitate rate increases and he didn’t believe it was his call to burden ratepayers with the costs of replacing privately-owned lead pipes. Since most people don’t have a lead pipe, he reasoned they wouldn’t benefit. This decision, he said, “needs to be made at the state or even federal level.” He considered lead paint a bigger issue than lead in water, and noted that some homes have lead fittings that will continue to contaminate water even after the lead pipe is removed.

He claimed that officials have tackled the lead## Legacy Lead Plumbing Continues to Endanger Communities as Authorities Leave Some Pipes Unaddressed

When Prandy Tavarez and his wife prepared for their upcoming parenthood, they invested in a house in a beautifully preserved neighborhood filled with century-old residences. Their excitement about their new home led them to enthusiastically renovate it, including addressing a potentially harmful lead-paint issue. However, they discovered that lead wasn’t only present in their paint – their home’s water pipe, made from the neurotoxin, was also contributing to the city of Providence’s ongoing water crisis with high lead levels.

The issue came to a head in 2008 when a road construction team, supposedly addressing the issue, removed only a portion of the lead pipe, leaving the rest intact. “It was merely a superficial fix,” Tavarez commented, expressing his frustration with the half-done job.

This situation isn’t unique to Providence. Across the country, utility companies are partially replacing lead pipes during water main repairs, even though total removal would be most feasible during these works. An investigation by The Big Big News revealed that this practice, which involves disturbing the pipes and leaving remnants, could temporarily raise lead levels, causing lifetime damage.

Yanna Lambrinidou, a medical anthropologist at Virginia Tech and co-founder of the Campaign for Lead-Free Water, strongly condemns the persistence of such practices. She underscores the severe health risks associated with lead exposure, especially for children, and criticizes utilities for avoiding full accountability and cost-cutting at the expense of public health.

Remaining pipe sections pose a continuing threat to drinking water safety until fully removed, and the long-term financial burden of this issue is inevitably higher. Despite these facts, numerous cities prefer to apply chemical treatments to the pipes instead of full replacements, citing lack of resources and local regulations as obstacles.

Yet, cities such as Buffalo, New York; Lincoln, Nebraska; and Detroit have shown alternatives. Despite Detroit’s bankruptcy struggles, its leaders committed in 2018 to replacing all lead pipes during water main repairs.

“Detroit is safeguarding the cognitive potential of our future generations,” stated Sam Smalley, the city’s water provider’s chief operating officer. He expressed his belief that any utility refraining from completely replacing lead pipes might be due to a lack of genuine commitment.

However, it’s been a challenging journey for Detroit, as they had to secure state and federal funding to manage water bills, conduct community meetings, and distribute water filters. Officials have reported positive public response, with residents allowing contractors access to their properties for pipe replacements, or face water cut-offs.

Yet, in contrast, several cities have chosen not to fully address the lead pipe issue. This ongoing negligence has likely occurred hundreds of thousands of times in cities such as Providence, Chicago, Oklahoma City, Allentown, Nashville, Memphis, and St. Louis.

Recent funding and awareness towards the lead pipe issue have pushed some cities to halt the problematic practices. Despite this, the partial replacement remains legal.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) first set limits for lead in drinking water in 1991. However, following a successful challenge by the American Water Works Association, this requirement got significantly watered down, leading to only partial replacements being required when lead levels are high.

The divided ownership of lead pipes between utilities and homeowners has further complicated the issue. Providence Water decided to only replace city-owned pipes, leaving the privately owned section up to the homeowner. As a result, most homeowners, faced with the high costs of replacement, didn’t opt to replace their sections of pipes.

EPA scientists, however, concluded in 2011 that partial replacements didn’t reduce lead levels. Despite this finding and Providence’s repeated EPA violations, local officials continued their practice of partial replacements whenever they worked on water mains.

The city of Providence has finally seen some improvement in its water quality in 2021, largely due to policy changes and federal funding. Now, during water main repairs, the city replaces the entire pipe for free. A recent state bill also mandates the replacement of all lead pipes within the next decade.

With the newly enacted Bipartisan Infrastructure Law allocating $15 billion towards finding and replacing lead pipes, more cities are expected to benefit from these initiatives. However, these funds are strictly for full lead line replacements. The EPA is concurrently working on stricter lead regulations.

However, local advocates believe that the delay in fully addressing the issue has cost the community. “The solution seems quite clear—get rid of the pipe. Yet, it’s disappointing that it took years of advocacy and national crisis to prompt action,” expressed Devra Levy, a Providence community organizer.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Lead Pipe Replacement

What are the hazards of lead pipes in water systems?

Lead is a potent neurotoxin that can harm brain development in children, lower IQ, and impair problem-solving skills. Partially replacing or disturbing lead pipes can spike lead levels in the water, posing serious health risks.

Why are some cities only partially replacing lead pipes?

Some cities only partially replace lead pipes due to cost considerations, divided ownership of pipes between the city and homeowners, and local regulations. These factors often lead to incomplete pipe replacement, leaving lead sections in place.

Which cities have committed to full lead pipe replacements?

Cities like Buffalo, New York; Lincoln, Nebraska; and Detroit have committed to full lead pipe replacements whenever work is done on water mains. Despite Detroit’s recent bankruptcy struggles, the city made a decision in 2018 to replace all lead pipes during water main repairs.

How is the government addressing the lead pipe issue?

The U.S. government is taking steps to address the lead pipe issue. The Environmental Protection Agency has set limits on lead in drinking water and is currently drafting stricter regulations. Additionally, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes $15 billion for finding and replacing lead pipes across the nation.

What can homeowners do about lead pipes on their property?

Homeowners can choose to replace lead pipes on their property, though this can be costly. Some cities provide no-interest loans for pipe removal. In areas where utilities replace only their portion of the lead pipe, homeowners will have to bear the cost of replacing the remainder. Some cities, like Providence, now replace the entire pipe for free during water main repairs, thanks to policy changes and federal funding.

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5 comments

Robb_in_RI July 9, 2023 - 6:07 pm

just another case of politics getting in the way of people’s health. Disgraceful. I mean come on Providence, really??

Reply
GoGreenGuru July 9, 2023 - 9:59 pm

so many toxins everywhere its overwhelming, we should have addressed this issue decades ago, not just now.

Reply
Mike_the_Plumber July 9, 2023 - 10:32 pm

Can’t believe this still happens. Thought lead pipes were history. Get it together cities, we need clean water!

Reply
MomOfTwoLittleOnes July 10, 2023 - 2:43 am

This is so scary 🙁 I have two kids under five. What’s safe to drink these days?!?

Reply
Informed_Citizen July 10, 2023 - 3:56 am

good to see federal funds going to something that matters. Hopefully the lead problem will be a thing of the past soon. Enough is enough.

Reply

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