This is the twenty-third in our series, “The ABCs of the AJP.”
President Biden’s American Jobs Plan (AJP) proposed $111 billion of investments into improvements in drinking water and wastewater management systems across the United States. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework that the President endorsed last week would provide just about half of that amount – $55 billion – which the President nevertheless described as “the largest investment in clean drinking water and waste water infrastructure in American history.”
Yet that includes all of the President’s proposed investments in replacing lead-containing water service lines and pipes, reflecting apparent bipartisan agreement that reducing exposure to lead in drinking water is worthwhile.
Infrastructure, Unqualified and Unplugged
Municipal drinking water and wastewater treatment systems epitomize infrastructure.
In contrast to the electric vehicle and grid modernization technologies that the AJP also seeks to promote as solutions to the climate crisis, replacement of lead-containing domestic water service lines falls much more clearly within what’s thought of as traditional infrastructure.
While the Bipartisan Framework would fund just half of the President’s initially proposed water infrastructure investments, it includes all of the lead service-line replacement expenditures proposed by the President. Additionally, the Democratic-controlled House last week passed the INVEST in America Act (H.R. 3684), which includes $167.25 billion in proposed drinking water and wastewater infrastructure spending, with two Republican members voting for it.
Getting the Lead Out
Lead in service lines and household plumbing is a well understood threat to public health. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there is no safe level for lead in drinking water and even low levels of lead in children’s blood can cause behavioral and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia.
The memory of the recent Flint, Michigan water crisis also looms large in the public mindset. In Flint, where 40 percent of people live in poverty, the city made a cost-saving decision in 2013 to switch from obtaining its domestic water supply from Detroit, to the Flint River. The Flint’s water was much more corrosive and not adequately treated, which resulted in lead in service lines and household plumbing leaching into the water.
Now, after $250 million of state funding and $100 million of infrastructure funding awarded by EPA pursuant to the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act of 2016, the troubled service lines and household plumbing have largely been identified, with the last 500 service lines slated to be excavated, checked and replaced this month.
The situation in Flint – described by one researcher as the most egregious example of environmental injustice in recent U.S. history – has become emblematic of the inequitable public health consequences that underinvestment in basic infrastructure can have on impoverished communities. Recent analysis suggests that lead exposure in the United States correlates to race.
Yet Flint is hardly unique:
- Newark, New Jersey, just recently removed over 18,000 lead service lines at no cost to residents.
- Washington, D.C., has embarked on a similar program, although one study found that customer-initiated service line replacements were being conducted primarily in higher-income neighborhoods.
These programs are costly and require significant levels of public investment to deploy at scale. Recognizing that, the AJP had initially proposed $45 billion in EPA State Revolving Fund and WIIN grants to replace all lead pipes and service lines for both homes and 400,000 schools and childcare facilities. The bill that the House passed last week includes funding for all of these efforts, plus an additional $53 billion to fund safe drinking water infrastructure and $51 billion for wastewater infrastructure.
Infrastructure and Environmental Justice
As described by our prior post, an animating principle of this Administration’s infrastructure plan is addressing environmental injustice. And perhaps no feature of the AJP so tangibly marries the concept of traditional infrastructure to the Administration’s environmental justice objectives as the proposed investment in the replacement of lead-containing water service lines.
Unlike other public health threats, the risks from exposure to lead have long been understood and its presence in domestic service lines and plumbing well known. As President Biden remarked upon pitching the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework last week in Wisconsin, more than 70,000 of Milwaukee’s 160,000 water service lines contain lead, although Milwaukee is far from unusual; “Every state is like this,” he said.
Just this past Tuesday, EPA Administrator Michael Regan, appearing with the Milwaukee mayor and his deputy on water, said removing lead pipelines is necessary to protect children’s health, but that EPA would look beyond lead in water pipes, to the threats posed by lead paint as well. The Administrator described the Bipartisan Framework as a “critical first step” to addressing these threats. It appears that a bipartisan coalition may agree, making removal of lead pipes a likely component of any infrastructure package enacted by Congress.