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Biden's plan to replace lead pipes would be a massive, expensive project

workers in the front yard of a home replacing lead pipes
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

President Biden wants to spend more than two trillion dollars rebuilding the nation’s aging infrastructure. One chunk of that would replace all lead pipes connecting homes to city water mains.

"Everybody remembers what happened in Flint, there's hundreds of Flints all across America," Biden said.

The experience of Flint, Michigan, is not only a cautionary tale about the dangers of letting infrastructure decay. But it’s also a warning about the challenges of fixing the country’s lead pipe problem.

Flint resident Harold Harrington is a master plumber. Right now, he’s digging through his tool box.

“This came out of my house," he said. "This piece of galvanized was in my basement it fed my upstairs faucet and this is out of my upstairs bathroom OK. It’s full of lead.”

Flint’s lead crisis began in 2014 when the city’s drinking water source was switched to save money. The new water source was not properly treated, damaging old pipes which leached lead into the drinking water.

To fix the problem, Flint has been replacing lead and galvanized pipes with new copper service lines.

Harrington has helped do that, and says it’s not easy. For example, they’re not always straight. Harrington holds up an old lead pipe twisted like a pretzel.

“You’re not just going to dig a hole because those have been there longer than the gas lines, the cable lines, the fiber optic lines. You’ve got tree roots that have grown in the last hundred years," he said. "It’s not as easy digging a hole. Or digging a hole in one spot and boring it. You got sidewalks, streets. It’s a major project and every one of them is different.”

Even determining whether the pipe in the ground is all lead, all copper or a combination can be tricky. Old water department records may be incomplete or out of date. And for decades, water utilities only replaced pipes to the property line creating franken-pipes with a mix of lead galvanized and copper -- which now have to be fully replaced.

Since 2016, the city of Flint has inspected more than 26,000 service lines and replaced nearly 10,000 lead and galvanized pipes.

Michigan Representative Dan Kildee.
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Michigan Representative Dan Kildee.

Michigan Congressman Dan Kildee has spent the past six years channeling federal funds to alleviate the lead’s long-term health effects on his hometown neighbors.

“If ten years ago, $15 or $20 million could have been committed to upgrade the water system in Flint and to get on a path of eliminating lead service lines, maybe the half a billion dollars that’s already been committed could have been avoided.”

“The Biden plan is way overdue," said Erik Olsen with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Olsen says lead and galvanized pipes continue to be a problem despite being banned in 1986.

“A lot of people think this is only a problem say in Flint or a few big, older cities," he said. "But in fact it’s distributed all over the country and it really is a major public health threat.”

Lead can cause damage to the brain and kidneys.

Of particular concern is the effect lead can have on young children. Lead exposure may slow development in kids under seven years old leading to learning and behavioral problems.

Nationwide the number of lead and galvanized pipes that need to be replaced is estimated between eight and ten million. The Biden proposal calls for spending $45 billion.

But it could be more expensive.

The American Water Works Association estimates the cost could exceed $60 billion. That concerns Allen Overton. He’s the pastor of Flint’s Christ Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church. Overton joined others who sued to get the city to replace all of its lead service lines. Now he worries disadvantaged communities may lose out if more affluent suburbs rush in and deplete the federal funding the Biden administration is proposing.

a sign announces an upcoming water line replacement area
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Lead pipe replacement makes up nearly half of what the Biden administration has proposed ($110 billion) spending on upgrading the nation’s water systems.

“People in Brown, Black, African-American, Latino communities that we know are going to have some disadvantages coming up the ranks anyhow. Let’s start there,” Overton said.

Others question whether replacing lead service lines should be such a large priority. Lead pipe replacement makes up nearly half of what the Biden administration has proposed ($110 billion) spending on upgrading the nation’s water systems.

But by some estimates, the U.S. needs to spend close to nine times (a trillion dollars) that much.

David La France of the American Water Works Association says it’s been too long since the last major update to the nation’s drinking and waste water infrastructure.

“A large investment was made in distribution systems after World War II. Those pipes are all coming of age and they all need to be replaced. That’s where we’re at today.”

However, even with federal support, there will likely be those who resist replacing old service lines.

And there is even some reluctance in Michigan -- which has its own mandate to remove all lead service lines within the next two decades.

Mason, Michigan town sign
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
In the little city of Mason, Michigan, some of the city’s estimated 1,400 lead service lines date back to the 1800s.

In the little city of Mason, some of the city’s estimated 1,400 hundred lead service lines date back to the 1800s.

Mayor Russ Whipple says Mason was already slowly replacing old pipes during routine roadwork and insists there no need to rush it.

“Our lead almost never reaches the threshold. When it does, it barely does. And usually we find out that the reason it did was because of a bad test.”

Despite his reservations though, Whipple says if federal funding becomes available....his community will likely apply.

Just up the road from Mason in Lansing, the state capitol, the city’s water utility has already replaced all of its lead service lines.

But it wasn’t easy and it took 12 years.

Dick Peffley is the general manager of the Lansing Board of Water and Light.

He says most Lansing residents willingly let utility crews inside their homes and excavate their lawns to replace the pipes. But some didn't. And Peffley says the utility had to use what he describes as "tough love."

“We just finally sent a series of letters saying ‘Listen, we need to get your lead service replaced for your own safety. We might be forced to turn your water off and we’ll turn it on when we put new service in.’ That letter got their attention,” Peffley said.

The city of Flint hopes to soon join the ranks of communities that have completely replaced all of their lead service lines.

Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley plans to inspect the last 500 service lines this summer.

“It’s... it’s a journey," he said, "and we’re completing that journey now.”

It’s a journey that many American cities and towns will need federal help to take.

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Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
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