Some Cities Still Neglecting Lead Pipe Replacement Despite Known Dangers

by Michael Nguyen
lead pipe replacement

When Prandy Tavarez and his wife purchased a four-bedroom house in a well-maintained neighborhood, they were excited about starting a family. Recognizing the dangers of lead, they promptly removed lead paint from windows, upgraded electrical systems, and replaced windows containing the harmful neurotoxin. However, there was another potential threat they were unaware of—the lead pipe carrying water to their home. Providence, where they resided, had been struggling with elevated lead levels in tap water for years. In 2008, a road crew partially removed the lead pipe during street construction, leaving the rest buried underground.

Investigations by The Big Big News reveal that numerous utilities across the country have adopted a similar practice, leaving lead pipe fragments behind during water main repairs. This hazardous decision results in increased lead levels and lasting harm, particularly to children’s brain development. Yanna Lambrinidou, a medical anthropologist at Virginia Tech and co-founder of the Campaign for Lead-Free Water, asserts that leaving lead pipe behind should have ceased long ago. Given the risks, partial replacements are viewed as immoral as they knowingly expose residents to continued lead exposure.

The remaining sections of lead pipe can contaminate tap water until they are fully removed. In addition to the health risks, this practice proves to be costlier in the long run, as crews will eventually have to return to complete the replacement. While some cities argue that chemical treatment can mitigate the issue, it is not foolproof. The Biden administration has expressed the need to replace all 9.2 million lead pipes in the United States. However, limited resources and local regulations hinder the progress even in cities committed to lead pipe removal.

Nevertheless, cities like Buffalo, New York; Lincoln, Nebraska; and even Detroit demonstrate that leaving lead pipe behind is not inevitable. Despite filing for bankruptcy protection, Detroit’s leaders made the decision to replace all lead pipes during water main work to safeguard the intellectual capacity of future generations. Sam Smalley, chief operating officer of Detroit’s water provider, suggests that utilities that don’t fully replace lead pipes often do so out of a lack of willingness.

Unfortunately, many cities continue to make different choices, leaving lead pipe in the ground. Experts estimate that this practice has likely occurred hundreds of thousands of times in places like Providence, Chicago, Oklahoma City, Allentown, Nashville, Memphis, and St. Louis. While increased attention and funding have prompted some cities to halt the practice, it remains legally permissible.

Providence faced a long struggle with lead contamination. In 1991, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set lead limits in drinking water, requiring utilities to replace entire lengths of lead pipe if water exceeded those levels. However, the American Water Works Association, representing utilities, challenged this requirement, arguing that the public should have more say in the matter. A federal appeals court sided with the association in 1994, resulting in only partial replacements being required when lead levels were high.

In 2005, Providence Water altered its chemical treatment, causing lead levels to exceed EPA limits. This triggered a removal requirement, but only for the city-owned portion of the pipe. The issue of divided ownership, where the utility owns part of the pipe and homeowners own the rest, further complicated the situation. Providence decided to remove only the city-owned portion, leaving homeowners responsible for the remaining cost. However, most homeowners couldn’t afford the expense, leading to a two-tiered system: one for those who could afford safe water and another for those who couldn’t.

Colleen Colarusso, a resident who discovered high lead levels in her water, resorted to purchasing bottled water and spending $3,500 to install a copper line. Richard Charlton, another homeowner, couldn’t afford to replace any pipe and believed it should be the city’s responsibility. Local rules often prohibit spending on private property upgrades, further obstructing lead pipe removal.

According to Steve Via, director of government relations at the AWWA, the responsibility for lead pipe replacement lies with the utility, individuals, and the government. Divided ownership remains a significant barrier to complete lead service line replacement. Providence Water General Manager Ricky Caruolo defended the decision not to force ratepayers to bear the cost of replacing privately-owned lead pipes, emphasizing that lead paint poses a more significant problem than lead in water. Caruolo also highlighted the utility’s efforts to address lead contamination through water treatment improvements, public education, and no-interest loans for pipe removal.

In 2021, Providence witnessed improvements in its water quality, with lead levels now within federal limits. Recent changes in Providence Water’s policy, supported by federal funds, ensure that the entire pipe is replaced during water main work, usually at no cost. The state legislature has also passed a bill mandating the removal of all lead pipes within a decade.

National progress has been aided by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which allocates $15 billion for the identification and replacement of lead pipes. Although lead in drinking water remains a concern, these funds will make water safer for many, but only if lead lines are entirely replaced. The EPA is also drafting stricter lead regulations.

Health and environmental groups have been advocating for lead-free drinking water in Providence for over a decade. Devra Levy, a community organizer formerly with the Childhood Lead Action Project, believes that eliminating lead pipes is the obvious solution. The progress made is welcomed, but it’s frustrating that it took years of advocacy, the Flint crisis, and national awareness to initiate such a straightforward action.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about lead pipe replacement

Q: Why are some cities leaving lead pipe in the ground?

A: Some cities are leaving lead pipes in the ground due to a combination of factors such as limited resources, local regulations, and cost considerations. However, this practice poses significant health risks and can lead to increased lead levels in drinking water.

Q: What are the dangers of lead pipe in drinking water?

A: Lead pipe in drinking water poses serious health risks, particularly for children. Lead is a potent neurotoxin that can impair brain development, lower IQ, and cause long-term cognitive and behavioral issues. There is no safe level of lead exposure for children, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Q: Why don’t cities fully replace lead pipes during water main work?

A: There are various reasons why cities may opt for partial lead pipe replacement. Limited resources, divided ownership of pipes between utilities and homeowners, and local regulations that restrict spending on private property can hinder the complete removal of lead pipes.

Q: Is chemical treatment effective in mitigating the risks of lead pipes?

A: While some cities claim that chemical treatment can reduce lead levels, it is not foolproof. Chemical treatments may not fully eliminate the risk of lead contamination, and they require ongoing monitoring and maintenance. Complete lead pipe replacement is considered the most effective long-term solution.

Q: What efforts are being made to address the issue of lead pipe in cities?

A: The Biden administration has expressed a commitment to replacing all lead pipes in the United States. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides funding for identifying and replacing lead pipes. Additionally, stricter lead regulations are being drafted by the EPA. Some cities have taken proactive measures, using federal funds, to replace lead pipes during water main work and implementing policies to ensure safer drinking water for residents.

Q: What are the consequences of leaving lead pipe in the ground?

A: Leaving lead pipes in the ground can result in increased lead levels in drinking water, posing serious health risks to residents, especially children. It also leads to higher costs in the long run, as future pipe replacements will be necessary. Additionally, it creates a two-tiered system where those who can afford to replace lead pipes have access to safe water while others are at risk.

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WaterWarrior88 July 10, 2023 - 1:32 am

kudos to cities like Detroit that prioritize the well-being of their residents and replace all lead pipes during water main work. other cities should follow their example and stop playing games with people’s health!

CleanWaterActivist July 10, 2023 - 4:07 pm

it’s infuriating that cost considerations and limited resources are prioritized over public health. every child deserves access to lead-free water. we need stronger regulations and funding to address this issue properly.

LeadFreeAdvocate July 10, 2023 - 4:55 pm

this article shows the serious consequences of neglecting lead pipe replacement. it’s unacceptable that some cities are putting their residents at risk. something needs to be done ASAP!

LeadAwarenessAdvocate July 10, 2023 - 7:06 pm

it’s disheartening that it took so long for cities to take action on lead pipe removal. We need more awareness, education, and support to prevent further harm to our communities. Let’s push for change together!

WaterLover21 July 10, 2023 - 8:46 pm

omg this is sooo bad! I cant believe cities are still leaving lead pipe in the ground! its dangerous af! wat r they thinking??

ConcernedParent123 July 10, 2023 - 9:31 pm

as a parent, this terrifies me! how can we trust that our tap water is safe when cities are leaving lead pipe in the ground? we need better accountability and immediate action to protect our children.

PuzzledReader July 11, 2023 - 12:00 am

wait, so they removed part of the lead pipe and just left the rest?? that’s like putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound! it’s not gonna fix the problem. complete replacement is the only way to ensure safe drinking water.


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