By Erik D. Olsen, Natural Resources Defense Council
Most of us remember the disastrous lead contamination of the tap water in Flint, Michigan, but few people realize that lead-contaminated drinking water is a widespread problem across the country. Action on this problem is long overdue, and the House of Representatives now has a chance to take a major step forward to address it.
The Nationwide Lead-Contaminated Tap Water Crisis
There are 6 to 10 million lead service lines (the pipes that run from the water main in the street to peoples’ homes) still in use in every state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, serving a total of up to 22 million Americans. An analysis by my NRDC colleague Dr. Kristi Pullen Fedinick found that tens of millions of Americans are served by water systems violating Environmental Protection Agency rules intended to reduce lead levels in drinking water.
Drinking water from these sometimes century-old pipes is like drinking from a lead straw. The only way to ensure that lead contamination doesn’t get into our tap water from these pipes is to pull them out of the ground and replace them. While that’s not cheap, it’s doable and very important to protecting our children’s health. The American Academy of Pediatrics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and many others point out that there is no known safe level of lead exposure, so experts have long urged that lead levels in drinking water be reduced.
Congress Now Has a Chance to Start Fixing the Lead Contamination Problem
There is some potentially good news coming. The full U.S. House of Representatives is about to consider a major piece of legislation, the “Moving Forward Act” (H.R.2), which is intended to invest in fixing many long-neglected infrastructure problems to improve health, the climate, and environmental protection while creating jobs that pay a living wage. When the bill comes to the House floor the week of July 1, 2020, a very important Amendment (#95) sponsored by Michigan Democratic Representatives Rashida Tlaib, Dan Kildee, and Elissa Slotkin, would authorize $4.5 billion dollars per year for 5 years to help pay to fully replace lead service lines across the country. Low-income “disadvantaged communities” and environmental justice communities that suffer from disproportionate environmental health threats would get priority for funding. This amendment would take a major step towards addressing what has been called “a long-running environmental catastrophe.”
One key aspect of the Tlaib/Kildee/Slotkin amendment is that it would require that lead service lines must be fully removed and replaced—no partial lead service line replacements would be funded. This is crucial because in some cases, water systems will saw off the lead pipe at the property line and not replace the rest of the lead service line. As my colleague Cyndi Roper has written, this can make lead problems worse, shaking lead loose from the pipes and causing what’s called galvanic corrosion.
Let’s Get It Done!
We commend Representatives Tlaib, Kildee and Slotkin for this important legislation, and urge the full House—and after that the U.S. Senate—to adopt this amendment to finally launch a nationwide program to replace all lead service lines. We can procrastinate no longer: let’s fix this scourge now.