|Lead, leaching into water lines in thousands of U.S. communities, causes particular harm to the neurological systems of children. It does show up in routine blood tests, although such medical care may be lacking for some. Photo: USAID. Click to enlarge.
TipSheet: Lead Pipes To Make News on the Environment Beat in 2022
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is one in a series of special reports from SEJournal that looks ahead to key issues in the coming year. Visit the full “2022 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report for more.
By Joseph A. Davis
Many environmental journalists will spend part of 2022 writing about lead pipes. How do we know? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Biden White House will be making sure of it.
The Biden administration announced its plans for lead in drinking water Dec. 16, after Congress enacted a hard infrastructure bill in November that contained $15 billion to replace lead service lines.
Lead poisons people — doing special harm to the neurological systems of children. In many communities, the service lines that connect street water mains to individual homes or buildings are made of lead, which leaches into the water itself under the wrong conditions.
Yet few public water systems have kept up with the problem. Imagine the 2016 Flint water crisis in thousands of cities all over the country.
Congress did not make lead pipes for drinking water illegal until 1986, but service lines installed before that remained in place. The EPA issued the first Lead and Copper Rule (which implemented that law) in 1991.
Why haven’t lead service lines been replaced? There is plenty of blame to go around. Lack of money has been one reason. Lack of information has been another: Local utilities and homeowners don’t always know where they are.
Few local utilities have rushed to address the problem. They want the public to be confident in their water. When expensive problems pop up, they have to raise rates, which is politically difficult and unpopular. Lead in water is easier to ignore, because it isn’t in the water leaving the treatment plant, but rather shows up at the tap in each particular house.
Utilities must now ID lead lines
The EPA may spend the next three years working up a new version of the Lead and Copper Rule. But in the meantime it will let the Trump-era revision take effect, because it is arguably better than the previous one.
One of the good things about the Trump version is that it requires utilities for the first time to identify and make public the locations of lead service lines. That alone will drive action and make news.
A lot of things about the EPA’s
lead pipe plan are still unsettled.
But there will be plenty of stories
at the state and local level.
A lot of things about the EPA’s lead pipe plan are still unsettled. But there will be plenty of stories at the state and local level. The EPA plans to distribute the first year’s money — about $3 billion — through the states via the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund.
Here are seven ways to pursue this story at the local and state level.
- Start with the kids: If there is lead in the water, it will show up in blood tests on kids. Good pediatricians test children’s blood lead levels routinely, but many kids from disadvantaged groups may lack sufficient medical care. No level is safe, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests a “reference” level of 3.5 micrograms per deciliter. Ask local pediatricians and health department officials what they are finding.
- Test the water: If there was ever a do-it-yourself environmental metrics story, it’s lead in water. The good news is that the kits for testing lead in home water are fairly cheap, fairly accurate and usually available at hardware stores. But they must be conducted correctly. That means letting water sit in the pipes for a set time before drawing a sample. More samples will likelier yield a more meaningful result. Seek expert help in interpreting results. First, ask your local utility what testing they have done. Some utilities offer testing or test kits.
- Ask utilities what they know: Many (but hardly all) drinking water utilities already know lots about their lead problems. So ask if they know where some or all of their lead service lines are. Or what records do they have of home and building hookups? Or when did they stop putting in lead service lines? Or where did the lead lines go (note that often all homes in a development were done the same way)? Also ask if the utility has already tried to inventory its lead lines. Or if it has tested or sampled water at the tap.
- Get utilities’ lead service line inventories: The good news is that the 2020 Lead and Copper Rule required utilities to conduct and publish an inventory of lead service lines. The bad news is that it doesn’t require them to finish before 2024. Still, they must begin quickly and disclose findings as they get them. For some utilities, records are so poor that it will be hard. Ask your local utility for what they’ve got.
- Ask utilities about their plans: Only a handful of utilities have replaced all their lead service lines. A larger number are slowly going through funding-limited replacement programs over many years. And many have not begun or even planned action. What’s your utility doing? What funds do they have? Will they apply for the new money from the infrastructure bill?
- Check with the schools: The Trump rule also requires utilities to test water at schools and child care facilities. Ask the utility and the school about their findings. While lead service lines do occur at schools, there is also a common problem with water-cooler drinking fountains, which often contain lead solder.
- Talk to state agencies: Every state has an agency that oversees drinking water programs and regulates local utilities. It’s worth checking in with them to learn more about the situation in your state and the status of local utilities’ lead programs. Ask them for info about loans and grants under the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund — including which utilities have applied and which are expected to apply.
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 1. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.