The case for $ 45 billion (or extra) for secure consuming water

When President Biden revealed the priorities of his new administration, he wanted to replace every lead water pipe in America in 10 years as part of his major infrastructure package. In the proposal, the government calls for $ 45 billion in funding to help achieve this goal. We know that lead pipes are widespread and used in every state in the Americas and there is no safe lead content. Most importantly, these lead pipes pose a major threat to the health and safety of our children and communities. Replacing all lead pipes in America is a huge step in an effort to eliminate this threat. A deposit for safer drinking water is long overdue and would go a long way toward eliminating a potent and ubiquitous neurotoxin from our drinking water.

Copper tubing replaces lead lead wires in Flint, MI

Photo credit: Angela Guyadeen, NRDC

The $ 45 billion is a rough estimate of what it would take to replace the top service lines we know of in the country. There is an alarming lack of accurate government-provided data, according to an NRDC study, leading us to believe that this is likely a low estimate. Essentially, most states have no data on the number of lead water pipes in their state. This “nothing here” approach is ideal when you don’t want to spend money fixing a problem you think you don’t – or worse, suspect you have but ignore. However, lead doesn’t cease to exist and harm communities just because you don’t look for it.

Far too often, people with color live in the communities most affected by lead in drinking water. Here in Illinois, a study by the Metropolitan Planning Council found that the communities with the most leading utilities have 65% of the black and Latinx population of Illinois compared to 30% of the white population, clearly showing that people of color live in communities with the most leading service lines. Any cut from the proposed $ 45 billion currently debated in Congress could mean even fewer resources go to the communities that need them most and perpetuate environmental injustice for generations.

We know that lead is a dangerous poison that can permanently damage the brain and body. That’s one of the reasons the US took steps (mainly in response to a 1972 lawsuit and pressure from NRDC) to get it eliminated from gasoline in the 1970s. But why can we get the lead from gas that helps us, but not from the drinking water that is essential for children’s growth? The answer seems like a no-brainer to me.

As the proposal is discussed, I hope that these members of Congress will remember what is at stake and what legacy we want to leave our children. As we’ve seen in places like Flint, Newark, Pittsburgh, and to many other communities, the proliferation of lead is real, but the problem is solvable. Having the money to fix this problem once and for all will go a long way towards eliminating lead in drinking water.

This is the time for Congress and the Biden administration to grow up and fully fund the replacement of all lead lines in America, as the cost of driving home to a house with lead pipes could be even more expensive than we imagine.

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