The Biden administration outlined a plan on Thursday to replace all of the nation’s lead water pipes in the next decade. The multi-agency Lead Pipe and Paint Action Plan will use $15 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed last month and could require additional funding down the line.
“The bottom line is that there is no reason in the 21st century for why people are still exposed to this substance that was poisoning people back in the 18th century. There is no reason,” Vice President Kamala Harris said in a speech Thursday morning. “But here’s the truth, and it’s a hard truth: Millions of people in our country, many of them children, are still exposed to lead every day.”
Up to 10 million households in the country are connected to water through lead service pipes and service lines, according to the White House. And 400,000 schools and child care facilities in the country are at risk of being exposed to lead in their water. Black people who are not of Hispanic descent are more than twice as likely to live in housing at higher risks for exposure to lead-based paints and approximately 24 million housing units have significant lead paint hazards.
The White House said it will “use every tool at its disposal” to “correct these wrongs” and will activate billions of dollars in funding, including investments from the Environmental Protection Agency and the bipartisan infrastructure law, to do so. The administration also clarified that state and local governments can use some of the money provided in the American Rescue Plan to replace lead pipes.
As part of the plan, the Biden administration will establish hubs to support local water agencies in developing lead service line inventories, release an updated strategy to reduce lead exposure from the EPA and award grants to state and local government agencies from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“These game-changing investments will put American plumbers and pipefitters to work replacing all of the America’s lead pipes and service lines and making other critical upgrades,” the White House said.
EPA administrator Michael Regan said the agency will strengthen its existing drinking water standards to make sure more water districts replace lead pipes and prioritize replacing some of the country’s oldest lead service pipes. He said communities could actually see changes within months.
“We want to maximize these opportunities,” Regan told CBS News’ Ben Tracy. “So we recognize the sense of urgency. We understand that there is a structure in place to administer these funds that can sometimes be slow. But this administration is laser-focused on leveraging all of the resources as quickly as possible.”
The EPA said it will spend $2.9 billion of the $15 billion it received from the bipartisan infrastructure bill to replace lead service lines in 2022. The rest of the money will be spent over the next five years. While he said the plan will require additional resources at some point, Regan said the current funding is “more than enough” to spend now.
“We will meet the president’s objective,” he said.
The American Water Works Association commended the new plan, calling it “an important step forward.”
“The required development of lead service line inventories will help communities understand the scope of the challenge and accelerate lead service line replacement,” the association said in a statement Thursday. “This is a tremendous and necessary undertaking, and many utilities are already advancing this goal and serve as excellent models for others.”
According to the EPA, there is no known safe level of lead in drinking water because the toxic metal “can be harmful to human health even at low exposure levels.” Ingesting water with lead can lead to behavioral issues, a lower IQ and slowed growth for children as well as increased blood pressure, hypertension, decreased kidney function and reproductive problems for adults.
In towns like— a predominantly Black and lower-income city which has experienced a high level of lead presence since at least 2018 — many residents have relied on bottled water for daily tasks like cooking, drinking, brushing teeth, rinsing foods and mixing powdered infant formula at the direction of health officials.
Across the state in Flint, tens of thousands of residents will be financially compensated for having an elevated level of lead in their water for years. A federal judge last monthone of the largest settlements in state history of $626.25 million for the impact of lead exposure.
“It’s not only physically harming, but there’s, you know, mental anguish with these parents and these children,” Regan said. “These are very tough situations.”
He said families throughout the country can have confidence that help is on the way with the newly unveiled plan.
“We’re going to come together in the government and get it done,” Regan vowed.