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U.S. close to finalizing replacement of up to 10 million lead water pipes

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The U.S. House of Representatives has authorized USD$4.5 billion for the replacement of up to 10 million lead water distribution pipes nationwide.

From 2015 to 2018, some 5.5 million U.S. residents received water from systems that exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) lead action level, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). There are 6 to 10 million lead service lines, which run from the water main in the street to peoples’ homes, still in use in every state.

“Lead water pipes are a scourge from another century that continue to damage children’s brains and steal their potential to live the best possible lives,” announced Erik Olson, senior strategic director for health at NRDC. “We owe it to the next generation and families who expect safe water from their faucets to stop contaminating drinking water with poison,” he added.

The funding is part of the Moving Forward Act, a $1.5 trillion infrastructure and transportation package that will still need approval in the Senate.

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One particular focus of the pipe replacement project, which will occur over five years, may be to prioritize low-income neighbourhoods and communities that suffer from disproportionate environmental health threats, according to a proposed amendment. Detroit alone has at least 125,000 lead service lines, the NRDC found. Many House members in favour of the amendment say they want to help prevent the Flint water tragedy from happening again in another community.

“This legislation is especially crucial now, when disadvantaged communities are presented with so many challenges,” announced Yvette Jordan, a Newark, New Jersey public school teacher and chair of the Newark Education Workers Caucus, which is suing the City of Newark and New Jersey state officials over lead levels in drinking water.

“By addressing a major problem with our infrastructure — the need for full lead service line replacement — it will help move us towards ensuring a basic human right: clean water,” Jordan added.

lead service line graphic
Lead service line replacement. Credit: NRDC.

In Canada, cities such as Ottawa and Thunder Bay are finding success with rebates and interest-free loan programs for property owners to replace privately-owned lead water service pipes. Other city officials, such as those with the City of Regina, say they are making inroads to replace the city-owned side of lead service connections.

In the U.S., the EPA has also recently announced its final rule for “Use of Lead Free Pipes, Fittings, Fixtures, Solder, and Flux for Drinking Water”, amending its definition of “lead free”:

  • Not containing more than 0.2% lead when used with respect to solder and flux; and
  • Not more than a weighted average of 0.25% lead when used with respect to the wetted surfaces of pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings, and fixtures.

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