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There are concerns that EPA is distributing billions of dollars in the infrastructure law based on an outdated study that does not consider how many dangerous pipes each state has.
State officials and environmental advocates say some states could be shortchanged hundreds of millions in bipartisan infrastructure dollars to remove dangerous lead pipes because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has outdated information about the states’ needs.
“We’re super happy the money is there for lead service replacement, but the allocation formula doesn’t adequately reflect where the needs are,” said Donald Jodrey, federal government relations director for the Alliance for the Great Lakes, in an interview.
The issue was also raised by Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, during a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing last week on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s funding of drinking water programs.
“I know all states are going to need funding to address this lead service line issue,” she said. “But I am very concerned that Illinois, it seems, is disproportionately not getting the money.”
The potential dangers of lead pipes for drinking water became a national issue following the 2014 Flint, Michigan water crisis, where a switch in the source of water and mistakes at the city’s water treatment center led to thousands of residents being exposed to high levels of lead.
Lead is a neurotoxin that is especially harmful to children under age 2. Scientists say there is no safe level of exposure to the chemical. Congress outlawed the use of lead pipes for drinking water in 1986.
The EPA is required to allocate Drinking Water State Revolving Fund dollars based proportionately on the agency’s most recent assessment of state needs.
However, the latest assessment was done in 2018 and generally speaking states did not include the number of lead pipes they need to remove in the survey, said Erik Olson, drinking water advocacy director for the National Resources Defense Council. It “basically ignores the costs to replace lead service lines,” Olson said in an email.
So until the assessment is updated, infrastructure act funding will be distributed “based on needs other than lead service line replacement,” Olson said.
The $15 billion in direct funding for lead service line replacements Congress included in the infrastructure law was only a third of the $45 billion President Biden asked for.
Many States Could be Shortchanged
Illinois is not alone in facing being shortchanged, according to a study by Metropolitan Planning Council, a Chicago-based nonprofit think tank. Twelve other states—Ohio, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Missouri, Indiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska—are in line to receive less funding than they should based on the group’s estimates.
Although the EPA’s 2018 assessment did not include the number of lead service pipes in many states, the American Water Works Association conducted a survey in 2016 of states’ needs.
That review showed that Illinois has the most lead service pipes in the nation at 730,000. Based on the percentage of the lead pipes in the nation, its share of the federal money should be $1.8 billion, but it will only get $565 million, according to a Metropolitan Planning Council estimate.
California, on the other hand, has 65,000 lead pipes and should receive $159.6 million. However, the state, according to the council study, is in line for $1.3 billion.
Texas is another winner. Based on its 270,000 lead pipes, its share should be $662.8 million. However, the state, according to the study, is in line for $1.2 billion, or $513.2 million more than what the group says is its fair share.
Indeed, when the EPA distributed the first tranche of funding earlier this year, California received $249.4 million in DWSRF lead pipe removal money. Texas received $221.5 million and Illinois received $106.7 million.
Among other states, Washington, with an estimated 27,000 lead pipes, would get $268.2 million more than what the Chicago group believes should be its share of the dollars. North Carolina, with 82,000 lead pipes, is in line to get $259.2 million more than its share.
State Officials Weigh In
“We are aware that, based on the current funding formula for the IIJA lead service line replacement funds, Illinois EPA is not set to receive funding proportional to the number of lead service lines in Illinois,” said Kim Biggs, spokeswoman for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. “We are advocating to U.S. EPA for a more proportionate distribution of the funds.”
However, the potential disparity does not appear to be widely known at this point. Hugh McDiarmid Jr., a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, did not discuss the disparities in a statement in response to an inquiry, saying instead that the state has “a significant number of lead service lines that need to be replaced, and [the department] is working with federal and local partners to secure as much assistance as we can for our communities in need.”
James Lee, a spokesman for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, said his agency would review the study. “For now, our focus is to continue working with each public water system in Ohio to more definitively determine the location of lead service lines, and to use what federal funding is available for replacements,” he said.
Spokespeople for state agencies responsible for lead pipe removal in New York and New Jersey did not respond to inquiries.
Spokespeople for California’s, Washington state’s and North Carolina’s environmental agencies also did not reply when asked if they believe they are receiving more than they should. A spokesman for the Texas Water Development Board declined comment.
When Will the Data Be Updated?
The question now is whether the U.S. EPA can update its needs assessment to include information about lead pipes and incorporate the information before handing out its next tranche of dollars next year, Olson said.
Congress in the 2018 America’s Water Infrastructure Act required states and the EPA to update the 2018 needs assessment sometime this year.
But Olson said that work has not been done yet and the EPA has told advocates it might not be finished until next year.
“Funds will continue to be allocated based on needs that have little or nothing to do with lead service line replacement until then,” Olson said.
U.S. EPA spokesman Robert Daguillard, though, said the agency was in the “final stages” of updating its needs survey from 4,000 drinking water utilities nationally. “EPA is working to analyze the data so the results may be available as soon as is feasible,” he said.
Advocates, Olson said, “are urging EPA to finish the needs assessment early enough so that the next tranche of funding next year will reflect the needs of states.”
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.