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Timothy Male is executive director of the Environmental Policy Innovation Center. He wrote this for The Baltimore Sun.
Compared to almost any other public health or environmental problem, the presence of toxic lead in drinking water is an easy one to fix. Congress is giving the country a chance to do so.
Lead is almost never found naturally in water, instead we’ve been putting it there for the last thousand years by transporting drinking water through pipes made from it. Take away the lead pipe, and the lead rapidly disappears from the water.
In America, up to 10 million homes are believed to have lead water pipes, but we are better off than many countries. In Canada, around 40 percent of older homes have them and 25 to 30 percent of all homes in Europe do, too.
Lead pipe removal and replacement is as shovel-ready and shovel-worthy as infrastructure projects come. The infrastructure law provides $15 billion to start doing so.
Based on estimated total lead pipes per state, the formula the Environmental Protection Agency uses to divvy it among the states, and EPA’s average replacement cost of $4,700 per pipe, this is enough funding to replace at least half the lead pipes in 27 states There may be as many as a half million of these pipes in Maryland and surrounding states.
But slow planning processes and contracting paperwork could prevent many states from using this funding efficiently. Here are steps that could help ensure that millions of pipes get replaced in the next five years.
We know the precise location of only a fraction of America’s lead pipes, but they are typically not hard or expensive to detect — just ask your plumber. The mistake the EPA, states and communities might make is to spend two to three years searching for all the pipes before starting on replacement. It would be a tragedy to waste so much time for all the people living in homes with known lead pipes today. Cities should pay to replace the known lead pipes, now while searching for the remainder.
America’s largest cities and suburbs are typically served by large public or private water utilities that are good at applying for government funding. However, more than 90 percent of water utilities serve fewer than 10,000 people, and they don’t have capacity to apply for complex federal programs or manage funding that comes from them. America’s small towns could get left behind simply during the application process.
One way to help those communities is for every state government to establish statewide contracts with intermediary businesses that specialize in working across communities to deliver small construction projects. Intermediaries are already doing this through many other government programs.
For example, Prince George’s County has a $200 million partnership with a community-benefit partner that has been installing green stormwater projects for years, through local subcontractors whose workforce is more than 80 percent minorities and women. Intermediary organizations have a capacity to manage government contract paperwork that tiny communities lack. They also can wait out the months before government pays an invoice while having the cash to promptly pay the plumbers who carry out pipe replacements.
Another shortcut needed to accelerate lead pipe removal is the use of contracts that pay a fixed price only after work is completed. Thousands of local plumbers have firsthand knowledge of the location of lead pipes — so money shouldn’t only go to large construction and engineering firms. Plumbers and construction firms that are pre-authorized with local government or water utilities should be able to get paid back at a fixed rate for every replacement that is completed. More states and EPA should be encouraging this approach.
Lastly, EPA could also speed up pipe removal by clarifying that new funding can be used to retroactively pay for any documented lead pipe replaced since the infrastructure law passed. In other words, if a project can be completed today at the average cost that EPA expects, EPA should make clear that the replacement is funding-eligible, even if all the paperwork isn’t in place yet.
Side-by-side with each of these approaches, the nation’s largest water utilities must still operate centralized and methodical lead pipe replacement programs, especially in communities like Baltimore or Philadelphia with large numbers of lead pipes. But without these innovative contracting approaches, millions of families will continue to be exposed to lead in their drinking water, years after we could have removed it.