The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA)—also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law—includes a $15 billion commitment to replace the nation’s lead pipes that connect an estimated 9 to 12 million homes throughout the United States to the drinking water mains in their streets. NRDC fought alongside community partners and others to secure this $15 billion, and now we are working with these groups to ensure a fair and equitable distribution of the funds.
The nation learned about the damage caused by lead in drinking water in the shadow of the water crises in Flint and Benton Harbor, Michigan; Newark, New Jersey; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Washington, D.C.; and other communities served by lead pipes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no safe level of lead exposure for children. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes that low levels of exposure in children are linked to damage to the brain and nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and harm to blood cells. Exposed adults can suffer from cardiovascular disease and adverse impacts on reproduction and the kidneys, among other harmful health effects.
While there is much to like about this landmark federal investment in replacing lead service lines, key improvements are needed to equitably distribute funding and align this assistance with need. This is because the current state-by-state funding distribution formula is based on past drinking water infrastructure needs assessments that did not include the cost of fully replacing lead service lines.
Every state has lead service lines, but some have significantly more than others. The highest concentration of lead service lines delivering water to homes are in the upper Midwest and Northeast states as well as Texas. Using EPA’s published allotments for the first round of lead service line replacement funding, Elin Warn Betanzo of Safe Water Engineering determined that the states with the most lead service lines—like Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio—will receive far less per lead line than states with fewer lead service lines. For example, the states of Michigan and Missouri will receive an estimated $151 per lead service line, while some states with fewer lines will receive an estimated $7,441 and $10,098 per line, respectively. The graphic below illustrates these differences. The full data set can be found here.
The fix for this problem is for EPA to quickly complete its Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment (DWINSA) and to segregate and distribute the $15 billion for lead service lines based only on the number of lead service lines in each state or territory. According to a 2018 law, the DWINSA survey is required to be updated by this year (2022) and must include an estimate of the cost of fully replacing all lead service lines in each state. Once EPA completes this updated DWINSA survey, the agency then must distribute the $15 billion for lead service line replacement based on the newly estimated actual need for completing this task in each state. EPA should separate the $15 billion from other infrastructure funding and distribute it according to documented need for replacing lead service lines in each state. The $15 billion for lead service line replacement should not be commingled with the standard DWINSA allotments.
Allocating the $15 billion based on the DWINSA estimate is the only way to ensure a fair and equitable distribution of the federal lead service line replacement dollars. If this doesn’t happen, the states with the most lead service lines will receive significantly less per lead line than those with fewer pipes, increasing disparities in these heavily impacted states rather than improving equity in access to safe drinking water.