Maine’s aging water infrastructure would be upgraded under a $2.3 trillion plan outlined by President Joe Biden this week, and the work would start with a first-of-its-kind inventory aiming to locate lead pipes in the water system.
Some $111 billion in the plan would go to upgrade the nation’s sewers and water pipes, with $45 billion of that aimed at replacing lead pipes. Lead exposure has been linked to childhood learning disabilities. The toxic chemical can leach into drinking water as old pipes containing lead corrode.
The president’s plan, which he hopes will be approved by Congress by summer, is short on details about how the money is to be used and how much would come to Maine. But the state has some of the oldest infrastructure and housing stock in the nation. Both the state and water executives expect the money, along with proposed updates to a federal lead and copper rule, to kickstart Maine’s efforts to find out where lead problems lie and fix them.
The state doesn’t have a good handle on where exactly lead is in the water system in the ground, said Amy Lachance, director of the Maine Drinking Water Program at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The new federal rule would require all water companies to complete an inventory of their infrastructure.
“We want to make sure that when somebody turns on their water tap they do not have lead,” Lachance said.
Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, said the money would be “very good news for everybody who wants to know that when they move into a home, it won’t become a hazard to their health.”
While there are no data available for Maine, the Biden administration estimated that 6 million to 10 million homes still get drinking water through lead pipes and service lines that go from the utility’s street water supply into homes.
The Biden plan cited CDC information saying no level of lead exposure is safe for children, and exposure can cause learning, behavioral and hearing problems along with lasting kidney and brain damage. Maine CDC spokesperson Robert Long said that in its investigations, elevated lead levels in children typically are caused by lead paint and rarely from water.
Despite its status as the wealthiest country in the world, the US ranks 13th in the overall quality of its infrastructure, the plan said. Maine was given a C-minus grade for infrastructure by a national civil engineers group in 2020 and a C for drinking water.
“We’re struggling to get above a C,” Bruce Berger, executive director of the Maine Water Utilities Association, said. “The biggest reason is the age of our infrastructure.”
He said some pipes in the ground here date from 1860 and 1870, and the useful life of a pipe is 100 years. Manmade chemicals such as PFAS also are problematic. Berger said he’s been pushing the federal government for several years to boost its commitment to funding replacements.
More than 200 water utilities in Maine provide public water supplies, meaning they serve 25 or more people, Berger said. Most of their lines likely do not have lead in them, although the lines running onto the owners’ properties may. Most of the internal issues are with fixtures inside the home and lead solder that may have been used for plumbing repairs.
One other culprit is a short piece of connecting lead pipe the utilities used before the 1940s called a “gooseneck.” Companies including MaineWater Co. are focused on replacing those. MaineWater President Rick Knowlton estimated that anywhere from 5 percent to 20 percent of the 80,000 customers in his district throughout the state may still have them.
The coming inventory requirement will identify the problems throughout the water system. Berger said utility companies generally know that a house built before 1940 could have lead plumbing in it.
Biden’s plan asks Congress to invest $45 billion into the Environmental Protection Agency’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and in Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act grants. The president said that in addition to reducing lead exposure in homes, the money will reduce lead exposure in 400,000 schools and childcare facilities. Lachance said any federal money Maine receives likely will be disbursed through the state’s revolving fund for infrastructure improvements.
A 2016 USA Today investigative report found 44 samples in 26 Maine schools or day care facilities had unhealthy levels of lead in the water that exceeded EPA guidelines. In May 2016 four drinking fountains at two schools in Bangor were shut down because of elevated lead levels. Elevated lead levels were found in two Yarmouth school buildings in September 2016. The following April high lead levels in the water at Boothbay Region High School and Boothbay Region Elementary School prompted administrators to ban water consumption.
Lachance said the Maine Drinking Water program is in the process of starting a lead-sampling program in K-12 schools. It is funded with federal grants, but the Maine Legislature still is determining how the program will be implemented.
Other parts of Biden’s plan would upgrade wastewater and stormwater systems, tackle new contaminants and support clean water infrastructure of all types. Some $56 billion in grants and low-cost loans are being proposed for states, tribes, territories and disadvantaged communities across the country to modernize aging water systems, especially in rural areas.
Another $10 billion would go toward monitoring and remediating PFAS and rural water systems, household well and wastewater systems and drainage fields.