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The requirement would be a “massive unfunded mandate,” said a group representing local water utilities. But it does give cities, particularly those with lots of lead pipes, some leeway.
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The Environmental Protection Agency wants all of the nation’s lead pipes dug up and replaced over a decade. But local water utilities are balking at the timeline and price tag.
Municipalities are already required to remove pipes that contain a certain amount of lead, but the EPA on Thursday proposed requiring utilities around the country to find and remove all of them saying that any level of contamination causes harm. The pipes would have to be removed over 10 years, beginning three years after the agency formally adopts the new regulation. The proposal would also require local water to more quickly notify residents when they discover lead in their water supply.
The rule would come with no additional funding. The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act did include $15 billion to remove lead pipes, as well as $11.7 billion in Drinking Water State Revolving Funds that can also be used for that purpose. But Thomas Dobbins, CEO of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, said his group estimates that removing all of roughly 10 million lead pipes in the nation will cost tens of billions more, as much as $47 billion.
Requiring the utilities to remove all the lead pipes would be a “massive unfunded mandate,” Dobbins wrote the EPA last year. In order to pull off the agency’s ambitious goal, he continued, “communities would likely have to turn to increased customer water rates to cover these replacement costs, which could be expected to disproportionately impact low-income customers.”
But getting less notice is that agencies with the most lead pipes will get a little more time to meet the requirement. Specifically, the agency said it would give utilities that have to replace more than 10,000 service lines a year “as many years as necessary” to replace all the lead pipes “as quickly as feasible.”
The EPA said it would give smaller utilities that have a large proportion of lead pipes more time, as well.
The potential dangers of lead pipes 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 the age of 2. Congress outlawed the use of lead pipes for drinking water in 1986.
The EPA’s 622-page proposal also addresses one major concern raised by utilities—that they would have a hard time identifying lead pipes on private property.
“The task of fully replacing lead service lines is often complicated because ownership of each household’s service line is split between the community water system (which generally owns the portion from the water main to the property line) and the private homeowner (who typically owns the portion from the property line to the building inlet),” Dobbins wrote in his letter to the EPA last year. “Community water systems are generally unable to access or replace a privately owned lead service line without the permission of the property owner.”
Newark, New Jersey, in 2019 changed its laws in an attempt to address that hurdle. The city gives private property owners two options: They could replace their lead service lines on their own within 90 days, or, if they sign up for the city’s lead replacement program, they would be required to allow the city to access their property. If they failed to do so, they could be fined up to $1,000 or face 90 days in jail or community service.
In his letter to the EPA, Dobbins said that other cities and towns around the country would have to pass similar laws to Newark’s or else the requirement to replace all of the nation’s lead pipes would be “likely to fail.” As a result, low-income communities, which have much of the nation’s pipes, would disproportionately be threatened with “fines or jail time.”
After Thursday’s announcement, the association said in a statement that it is “pleased” the proposal “acknowledges barriers related to accessing lead service lines on private property.”
As it is, utilities would have to remove a tenth of lead pipes each year to meet the 10-year goal, a target that the EPA argues is “feasible.” It noted in its proposal that Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey and Rhode Island, which is estimated to have one-fifth of the nation’s lead pipes, have all passed state laws calling for their removal.
Water agencies have also shown they can remove all their lead pipes in far less than 10 years. Water utilities in Tucson, Arizona, and Spokane, Washington, removed all of theirs in two years. Smaller systems in Stoughton and Mayville, Wisconsin, were able to remove all of their pipes in just one year.
The EPA also argued that water utilities will be able to find solutions to their concerns that shortages in workers and supplies will slow their ability to do the replacements. The EPA pointed to four states that are already trying to remove lead pipes even as they are also looking for workers and supplies.
Local governments can take steps to find workers, the EPA said, noting that Detroit hired contractors, in addition to hiring 17 field service technicians, to replace lead pipes. Newark started an apprenticeship program as part of its effort.
The EPA argued that the cost of removing virtually all of the nation’s lead pipes is worth the price because of the harm they are causing to not only children but adults, too.
“The science is clear: There is no safe level of lead exposure,” the agency said in a statement. “In children, it can severely harm mental and physical development—slowing down learning and damaging the brain. In adults, lead can cause increased blood pressure, heart disease, decreased kidney function, and cancer.”
The proposal comes as state and local water agencies have already been telling Congress that even the massive investment in the infrastructure act is not enough to pay for the array of issues they are dealing with. Local water utilities say they are already strapped for money to replace aging infrastructure and are dealing with other threats to drinking water like per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
What’s more, politics in Congress has cost some states like Texas millions of dollars. The Lone Star State has complained that money meant for its water utilities was diverted by Congress in earmarks to other states.
In its statement after the proposal was unveiled, Dobbins said water utilities will need “adequate funding assistance from state or federal sources.” In addition, the association said it will need more technical assistance from the federal government to ease the cost, particularly for smaller utilities.
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News to Use
Trends, Common Challenges, Cool Ideas, FYIs and Notable Events
- INFRASTRUCTURE: Rules phasing out fossil fuels in new construction adopted. It will soon become nearly impossible to install fossil-fueled appliances to heat new homes and businesses in Washington. Under building code amendments adopted Tuesday, builders would need to match the energy efficiency of heat pumps in order to install gas in new commercial and residential buildings. The new requirements could go into effect as soon as March 15. Washington pressed pause on its original heat pump mandate earlier this year after a federal court overturned Berkeley, California’s ban on gas in new buildings. This week the state Building Code Council approved a watered-down version of its original heat pump mandate. Rather than outright requiring electric heat pumps, it would make it more cumbersome and expensive for builders to meet energy efficiency targets without installing heat pumps.
- ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: Michigan to regulate AI political ads. Michigan is joining an effort to curb deceptive uses of artificial intelligence and manipulated media through state-level policies as Congress and the Federal Elections Commission continue to debate more sweeping regulations ahead of the 2024 elections. Campaigns on the state and federal level will be required to clearly say which political advertisements airing in Michigan were created using AI under legislation signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday. It also will prohibit use of AI-generated deepfakes within 90 days of an election without a separate disclosure identifying the media as manipulated. So far, states including California, Minnesota, Texas and Washington have passed laws regulating deepfakes in political advertising.
- CLIMATE CHANGE: Massachusetts to hire “chief coastal resilience officer.” A new employee within the state’s Office of Coastal Zone Management will be tasked with identifying a regulatory framework to address the impacts of climate change along Massachusetts’ 1,500-plus mile coastline. Warning that climate change “poses a very real threat to our coastal way of life,” Gov. Maura Healey said Tuesday a state planning initiative dubbed “ResilientCoasts,” led by the chief coastal resilience officer, will help prepare communities for rising sea levels and more extreme storms.
- PUBLIC RECORDS: A ballot measure in Arkansas would protect public access. Just weeks after lawmakers in Arkansas passed legislation shielding certain state records from public disclosure, opponents launched an effort to amend the state’s Constitution to protect access to government documents. Arkansas is one of several states this year that made more information secret by altering public records laws. State officials say they are being overwhelmed with records requests, sometimes meant to harass lawmakers. But the changes have alarmed press freedom and open government activists because such exemptions can make it harder for constituents to hold state officials to account. Florida this year enacted a new law exempting the past and future travel records of the governor and other leaders from public disclosure. Arizona increased the price of providing certain police records and made it easier to close legislative records. And North Carolina legislators made rule changes that critics say will allow them to disclose or hide records at their own whims.
- PUBLIC TRANSIT: Free bus, train rides reduced air pollution. Nationwide, cities have been offering free transit rides. A first-of-its-kind study shows public transportation can improve air quality. The Regional Transportation District in Denver spent more than $15 million this summer on free rides with the goal of cleaner air along the Front Range, and more than 6 million pounds of greenhouse gas emissions were cut during the Zero Fare for Better Air promotion. People who chose to ride buses and trains in July and August likely reduced the number of vehicle miles traveled by 145,393 a day, or 9 million miles over the course of two months, according to the Zero Fare for Better Air 2023 Evaluation report released Thursday.
- FINANCE: A basic income trial got $2 million to continue for a second year. A basic income pilot in Denver will continue into its second year after Mayor Mike Johnson committed $2 million following pressure from groups advocating for labor, the unhoused, people with disabilities and immigrants. The program is one of more than 20 initiatives launched by city governments in the U.S. during the pandemic that provided some form of guaranteed income, usually to a specific community with financial challenges. Denver’s program focused on its unhoused population. A report released in October looked at the program’s success at the six-month mark and found that recipients were more likely to be housed than when the program started and that there were decreases in the number of people sleeping in shelters.
- WORKFORCE: Nebraska employees raise concerns over return-to-office mandate. A Nov. 13 order requires employees of Nebraska's executive branch to "perform their work in the office, facility or field location assigned" from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. each weekday, providing few exceptions for the more than 2,855 state employees who had been working in hybrid or remote settings. Gov. Jim Pillen cast the move as an end to pandemic-era remote and hybrid work, though many state departments had work-from-home policies and procedures in place before the pandemic. In emails to state Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha—who last week asked state employees to share internal memos and concerns with her before providing anonymized responses to reporters—more than two dozen workers lodged anxieties over what the mandate will mean for their finances, mental health, family life and the state's ability to recruit and retain help.
- GAMBLING: Internet casinos thrive in 6 states. Why not more? In the 10 years that it has been operating in New Jersey, internet casino gambling has generated nearly $7 billion in revenue for casinos and their affiliates, sent over a billion dollars in tax revenue to the state’s coffers and helped keep Atlantic City’s nine casinos afloat while they were shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic. So why hasn’t it caught on more widely across America? Currently, only six states offer internet casino gambling: New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Michigan and West Virginia. A number of reasons have been offered on why it has yet to expand more widely: among them are fears (unfounded, analysts say) that internet gambling will draw gamblers away from physical casinos, and a higher priority effort to approve sports betting. Proponents say they expect additional states to adopt online casino gambling soon, in part because a wave of federal pandemic stimulus funding from the federal government is ending, and states are once again looking for new sources of tax revenue.
- CRIME: 3D printers used to modify weapons proliferate, police say. Federal authorities are stepping up enforcement and warning the public about what are known on the streets as “Glock switches.” These are small devices that are used to convert semi-automatic handguns, like the popular Glock, into weapons that can fire dozens of rounds in seconds. Nationally, from 2017 to 2021, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives recovered 5,454 machine gun conversion parts, marking a 570% increase over the preceding five years. In Oklahoma, the issue is particularly acute. In 2023, authorities there have already recovered 103 conversion devices, or nearly 330% more than last year. Possession of the devices, even for recreational purposes, violates federal law as illegal possession of a machine gun. The crime carries a prison sentence of 10 years.
- MIGRANTS: Dallas County worries new law could crowd jails. County commissioners say new state legislation allowing arrests of undocumented migrants could lead to a crowded jail as well as increased costs to taxpayers and the community. Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw told the senate committee on border security that such legislation could result in about 72,000 arrests statewide per year. Dallas County is estimated to see about 10% of those arrests. County Judge Clay Lewis Jenkins said incarcerating people who have crossed the border illegally means less room for those who have been accused of other crimes. “There’s not room in the jail anymore for people who steal your television set and break into your garage or worse,” he said.
- PRISONS: New Missouri program lets inmates run their own corner of the prison. Staff at the Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green, Missouri, handpicked 14 longtime inmates to lay the foundation for Dynamo, a program that offers a tremendous amount of freedom to inmates who have shown many years—sometimes decades—of good behavior behind bars. Dynamo inmates have keys to their housing unit and yard, which they can access at any hour and are responsible for cutting the grass. They have open movement to food service, jobs, library, recreation and canteen. They have access to a day room with a soft sofa, large television, washer and dryer, refrigerator, ice machine, plants and an aquarium to help alleviate stress. “We took them out of a structured environment and put them in a responsible environment,” said Warden Clay Stanton. So far, he said, results have been “amazing,” including: Zero fights and no drugs, overdoses or violations.
- HEALTH CARE: Oregon’s legal psilocybin clinics draw hundreds. Hundreds of people have used psilocybin legally in Oregon since the first licensed center opened in Eugene in June. Oregon is the first state to legalize psilocybin use at licensed businesses. The new industry is expensive, costing clients as much as $2,500 out of pocket for an hours-long psilocybin trip. The Oregon Health Authority licenses the growers, clinics and facilitators who work with clients. To date, the agency has licensed 17 service centers and issued permits to more than 540 people, who are mostly psilocybin industry workers and trained facilitators. The new industry is generating so much interest in psilocybin that some centers have thousands on indefinite wait lists. The psychoactive compound, produced by more than 200 species of mushrooms, can spur breakthroughs in major depressive disorder, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and other intractable conditions, according to a growing body of scientific research.
Picture of the Week
A week after unveiling a new standard license plate design, Gov. Laura Kelly rescinded it and is opening up a public input process where Kansans will have the opportunity to vote for their favorite design before one is adopted. “I’ve heard you loud and clear. Elected officials should be responsive to their constituents, which is why we are adjusting the process so Kansans can provide direct input on our state’s next license plate,” Kelly said in a statement. “I promised to be a bipartisan governor, and I think we can all admit—I succeeded at bringing Kansans across the political aisle together in disliking this new license plate.” The state sought to phase out the current embossed plates due to safety concerns, saying that they are difficult to read after a couple years on the road. At a news conference on Tuesday, Kelly told reporters that the biggest concern she’s heard from people is that the golden background and black lettering resemble Mizzou colors. (Illustration courtesy of the Kansas Department of Revenue)
Government in Numbers
The current deficit in funding for Delaware’s state health insurance program, which the state says is due in part to an increase in weight loss prescriptions. Last fall, Delaware joined several states and Medicaid in deciding to cover weight loss drugs, but there has been more demand than expected. “The projections from our pharmacy benefit manager was that we would likely spend about just shy of $2 million, and instead, it’s well over $7 million," said Department of Human Resources Secretary Claire DeMatteis. Delaware spends an average of $1.2 billion on the Group Health Insurance Plan to provide health care to active state employees, their spouses and dependents, retirees pre-Medicare and state pensioners.
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty, covering Congress and federal policy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @Kery_Murakami