Time to Get the Lead: Implementing the Lead Pipe Removal Program | Davis Wright Tremaine LLP


Although the toxicity of lead has been known for a century, the United States is still lagging behind in controlling lead in drinking water. Exposure to lead is known to cause brain damage affecting intelligence and impulse control.

In fact, prestigious studies show that the decline in crime rates in the United States in the late 20th century was related to the decision to require unleaded gasoline, which lowered elevated blood lead levels among residents near highways. A small legal boom also developed around the removal of lead paint from older cases.

Yet the country has failed to act aggressively to remove lead pipes from our public water systems. While there is consensus that no lead pollution is acceptable, states were not even required to identify, let alone remove, the existing lead pipes.

The recent Infrastructure Act and EPA measures to strengthen the lead and copper rule now promise some significant advances, if not a definitive solution. The Infrastructure Act allows $ 15 billion for lead pipe and paint removal, which is certainly enough to get the job off to a good start, although the cost of removing the pipes alone has been estimated at $ 40 to 50 billion .

However, the limited funding requires prioritization and the lack of information on the size and location of lead water pipes severely affects the authorities’ ability to plan for their efficient removal. Likewise, the money will go to the states to manage the removal efforts, suggesting the lack of current state planning for such programs.

The EPA now appears to be taking this seriously following the public relations and public health disasters in Flint, Michigan and Newark, New Jersey.

The EPA also said it will maintain the lead and copper regulation, which has been heavily criticized by the Trump administration, as while the regulation delays the pace of removal required, it also requires authorities to develop information on the extent of lead pipe use. The EPA added that it intends to address the issue of austerity later and enact a new copper and lead regulation by 2024.

This could be a golden opportunity to eradicate a real scourge that has been affecting the health of people in low-income areas for decades. Aside from the benefits of job creation for plumbers and pipeline builders – even if these are certainly substantial – the country cannot miss this opportunity despite the enormous costs. In other words, what the country cannot accept is the continuation of the enormous cost of human resource loss associated with lead exposure.

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