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Lead pipes have contaminated water for decades. Biden's new plan will replace them

President Biden speaks at a Democratic National Committee holiday party on Tuesday in Washington, as Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff listen. The Biden Administration announced its action plan this week to replace the country's lead pipes, which impacts up to 10 million households.
Patrick Semansky
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AP
President Biden speaks at a Democratic National Committee holiday party on Tuesday in Washington, as Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff listen. The Biden Administration announced its action plan this week to replace the country's lead pipes, which impacts up to 10 million households.

It's been 35 years since Congress amended the Safe Drinking Water Act to prohibit the use of pipes that were not lead-free in the country's water systems. But for decades, lead pipes and lead paint have continued to impact millions of people in their homes, schools and daycare centers, contaminating drinking water and producing toxic chemicals in the air.

On Thursday, the Biden administration announced its plan to remove lead pipes and lead paint within the next decade.

"There is no reason in the 21st century for why people are still exposed to this substance that was poisoning people back in the 18th century. There is no good reason," Vice President Harris said during a speech at the AFL-CIO in Washington.

The White House estimates that between six to 10 million households get their drinking water from lead pipes and 24 million homes across the country have lead paint.

The presence of lead in drinking water and in the air has an especially detrimental impact on children, who can experience developmental delays, damage to the brain and kidneys and other severe health consequences. And stunningly, half of all children under the age of six are exposed to lead in their home.

Vice President Kamala Harris delivers a speech at the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C. on Thursday about the Biden Administration's plan to remove and replace lead pipes and paint, an effort funded in part by the bipartisan infrastructure plan Biden signed last month.
Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
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AP
Vice President Harris delivers a speech at the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C. on Thursday about the Biden administration's plan to remove and replace lead pipes and paint, an effort funded in part by the bipartisan infrastructure plan Biden signed last month.

The exposure of lead also tends to disproportionately impact lower income communities and communities of color, making this an environmental justice issue, Harris said.

The White House's plans to tackle lead pipes and paint fall under the bipartisan infrastructure plan, which President Biden signed into law last month.

The administration says the action plan will span across several agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In addition to the physical removal of lead pipes and paint, the EPA will also better regulate the lead and copper testing requirements.

$15 billion has been set aside for the process, but is it enough?

Removing and replacing the country's lead pipes was a promise Biden made on the campaign trail in the primary. In his original infrastructure plan, though, the proposed funding for the project was $45 billion. After months-long debates on Capitol Hill, the investment went down to $15 billion, which some say isn't enough of a financial commitment.

Michael Drysdale, an attorney who practices environmental law, points out that the process for removing lead pipes is a pricey effort.

"Pipe removal and replacement is very expensive, and the need is concentrated n poorer communities," he said in a statement. "Although the recently enacted infrastructure package provided $15 billion in funding for lead pipe removal, another approximately $30-45 billion is needed."

Some have estimated the price tag would exceed $60 billion.

But Ali Zaidi, Deputy White House National Climate Advisor, says the administration still sees the investment as a success.

"We're working really hard to make sure we're being inventive and creative in the way that we go after this challenge," Zaidi told reporters. "It means making sure we're standardizing contracting, we're using the best technology, we're using data tools to help bend the cost curve."

Zaidi noted that nearly $3 billion will go toward replacing lead pipes as early as next year, and the administration will also be tapping into funds from the American Rescue Plan passed earlier this year to remove lead pipes.

"The funds from the American Rescue Plan already mobilized taking pipes out of the ground," he said. "These dollars will accelerate that effort."

In Flint, the process of replacing lead pipes is already underway

The city of Flint, Mich. has already started the task of replacing its lead pipes. It's been seven years since it was first revealed that Flint residents were consuming high levels of lead in their drinking water — but were being lied to by city officials.

Since 2016, the city has inspected thousands of lead and galvanized pipes — and the process has been extremely complicated.

Besides the physical aspect of digging through the ground between gas lines and tree roots, the data about which water lines are lead, copper, or mixed can be unclear.

"It's a major project," Harold Harrington, a plumber working to replace the pipes in Flint, told NPR in May, "and every one of them is different."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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