POLITICS

Will The U.S. Ever Get Rid Of Its Lead Pipes?

Not many in government seem committed to the idea.
What happened to Flint's lead pipes could happen anywhere.
What happened to Flint's lead pipes could happen anywhere.

WASHINGTON -- Even after the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, reminded Americans that millions of homes across the country receive drinking water from dangerous lead pipes, there hasn't been much effort to dig up the pipes nationwide. Why?

"The reason is they're out of sight, out of mind," Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told The Huffington Post. Listen to a recording of his comments on "So That Happened," the HuffPost Politics podcast. 

"People don't know that they're there," Cardin continued. "If people knew there were lead pipes underneath our grounds, if they knew that there's a potential risk to their children they would have demanded action. Unlike roads, which you see every day and you go over potholes, you don't see that with the water infrastructure."

Lead pipes everywhere are old and literally crumbling, with tiny pieces breaking off and flowing to people's kitchen sinks, potentially damaging the brains of small children who drink the water. For people whose homes are connected to water mains via lead service pipes, how much lead they might drink depends largely on how well their local water system treats the water to reduce its corrosiveness.

The Flint water crisis occurred because the water system and its state regulator failed to treat the water correctly, which resulted in the corrosion of the pipes and the subsequent lead contamination. It could happen in any city that has lead pipes. 

Cardin has introduced legislation that would improve monitoring and public notice of lead water problems, as well as provide $60 million annually in grants for lead pipe removal, but wouldn't require public water systems to get rid of their lead pipes.

Cardin's proposals, however, aren't about to hit the Senate floor anytime soon. Instead, a bipartisan group of senators has been working on legislation that would use an existing infrastructure loan program that gives cities credits to borrow millions for infrastructure repairs. The bill is designed to help Flint, though theoretically it could benefit any town facing a water crisis.

Jennifer Chavez, a staff attorney for Earth Justice, an environmental group, said the Flint legislation is good but that it won't go a long way toward removing America's millions of lead pipes. 

"Focusing money on helping Flint is really important at this point -- at the same time, just putting more money into the same systems is not going to fix the problem," Chavez said.

The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated 10 million properties in the U.S. get water from service lines at least partially composed of lead. It would cost billions of dollars to replace them. 

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), one of the top Democrats pushing the Flint legislation, acknowledged it doesn't reach the national scale of the problem.

"I think we have to have that discussion longer term, that we need to continue to be focused on water infrastructure," Peters said this week. "Some of that's beyond the scope of what we're going right now but it's definitely something that will hopefully be part of a broader discussion."

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, which oversees water infrastructure. Asked about Cardin's more aggressive proposals, a spokeswoman for Inhofe said the senator's current priority is the Flint bill, which he helped write and which is currently stalled

The top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), said she was unfamiliar with the specifics of Cardin's proposals but that some of them could be incorporated into a broader piece of legislation the committee will take up later in the spring. 

"This is a massive massive problem in our nation," Boxer said. "Flint is the tip of the iceberg and the worst example of lead poisoning from the water."

Public awareness of the Flint water crisis is high -- 58 percent of Americans surveyed by HuffPost/YouGov in February said they'd been following the story -- partly thanks to the Democratic presidential candidates, who used Flint as a talking point in their campaigns and as a backdrop for their debate last week.

Lee-Anne Walters, one of the Flint residents who last year helped blow the whistle on the high levels of lead in the city's water, got to ask a question at the debate.

"Will you make a personal promise to me right now that, as president, in your first 100 days in office, you will make it a requirement that all public water systems must remove all lead service lines throughout the entire United States, and notification made to ... the citizens that have said service lines," Walters said. 

Neither Clinton nor Sanders promised they would. Clinton said she would "commit within five years to remove lead from everywhere," an answer that Walters said "actually made me vomit in my mouth" because of how it sidestepped her specific question about lead service lines.

Rather than Congress, water lead experts are watching the EPA's efforts to revise regulations under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Even in cases of highly toxic water, the current regulations don't require public water systems to remove the entirety of a lead service line, since the pipe portion underneath a house's front yard technically counts as private property. And public water systems can easily fudge reporting requirements, which Flint did by sampling water from homes that didn't have lead service lines, thereby hiding the problem. 

Scott Knowles is an associate history professor at Drexel University who has studied political and policy responses to disasters. He said that while the regulatory response takes much longer, any given disaster typically fades from the news within a year. In other words, the political debate at the moment is not necessarily an indication of where policy will go.

"Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio are not going to be the ones who decide what new regulatory reforms will come as a result of the Flint water crisis," Knowles said. 

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