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These States Are Maximizing Federal Investment in Safe Drinking Water

The Biden administration wants to help remove all lead service lines in the U.S. within the next decade. A new report from the Center for American Progress highlights progress in states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

The Milwaukee skyline
Milwaukee is attempting to remove lead service lines from every household in the city. (David Kidd/Governing)
In Brief:
  • The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides grants for safe drinking water projects, including removal of lead service lines, which can cause exposure to lead in drinking water.

  • Lead service lines are present in every state and serve 9.2 million households, according to a new report from the Center for American Progress.

  • State and local programs in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania can help other communities learn how to take advantage of new federal funding, the report finds.

  • By 2026, the city of Pittsburgh could be free of one of the most significant sources of lead in drinking water.

    The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority has been working since 2016 to replace lead service lines, which carry water from underground mains into people’s homes. Last year, it announced it had replaced 10,000 lead service lines, adding up to 59 miles of pipe. The effort has been funded by all levels of government and accelerated by the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which funded millions in federal grants to help replace hazardous pipes in Pittsburgh and around Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh has created at least 600 jobs in the process.

    A new report from the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank in Washington, tracks how federal investments from the infrastructure law are helping states and cities remove lead service lines. Lead water pipes have been banned since 1986, but thousands of service lines still carry water in communities around the U.S. Lead service lines exist in every U.S. state and serve 9.2 million homes, especially in the Rust Belt, according to the report. They are concentrated in low-income communities and communities of color.

    Corrosion in lead pipes can expose people to lead in their drinking water. Aging lead pipes were a major cause of the water crisis in Flint, Mich., that began in 2014. Any exposure to lead is unsafe, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. Elevated levels of lead in the blood can cause long-term, irreversible developmental harm to children. Lead pipes are a significant source of lead in drinking water. The Biden administration has proposed investments and rules that would help states achieve a goal of removing all lead service lines within 10 years.

    Removing lead service lines is a public health need, but also would provide economic and social benefits, says Jill Rosenthal, director of public health policy at the Center for American Progress and lead author of the report.

    “It affects not only people’s houses but also schools and child-care centers," Rosenthal says. "It’s a critical issue. If you look at the return on investment that you can get out of doing this kind of work, that’s really significant. It’s creating jobs, improving health and saving health-care costs.”

    The report highlights progress in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, both of which have higher concentrations of lead service lines than many other states and which were investing in programs to remove them before the infrastructure law was passed.

    Pennsylvania’s Infrastructure Investment Authority has been providing technical assistance to local communities and participating in community outreach meetings. The authority offers grants and low-interest loans to communities, with a majority of both grants and loans being directed to disadvantaged communities. (The Biden administration’s Justice40 initiative, which is meant to guide its infrastructure investments toward underserved places, defines disadvantaged communities by a variety of metrics, including pollution and vulnerability to climate change, high rates of certain diseases, housing instability and other factors.)

    Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources works with neighborhood groups to help inform homeowners about programs that can pay for lead service line removal. Milwaukee has recently passed laws to use federal funds to cover removal for many households, although Milwaukee Water Works has just warned ratepayers that they could bear some of the cost. The city has developed a scoring criteria that prioritizes replacement in areas with higher concentrations of lead service lines, higher incidence of elevated blood lead levels and other socioeconomic factors. Building community support and buy-in, and fully covering costs for residents, are important to making lead service line replacement programs equitable, Rosenthal says.

    The federal investments present a “historic opportunity” to address environmental and public health dangers, Rosenthal says. Her report recommends that communities wanting to take advantage of the opportunity should start by creating an inventory of existing lead service lines in their neighborhoods. They should also prioritize funding for neighborhoods with disproportionate exposure to lead, work to replace the parts of the pipes owned privately and not just those owned publicly, invest in engagement to build trust and offer short-term solutions such as lead water filters to homeowners while they wait for lines to be replaced.

    Rosenthal says every state and city should be looking for federal assistance to replace lead service lines, and hopes the report can help them learn from places that are ahead of the curve.

    "I think that’s really compelling, knowing that it’s being successfully achieved in certain places,” Rosenthal says. “[This investment] is creating jobs and it’s improving health and saving health costs."
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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