As cities like Flint and Newark are trying to solve their water contamination problems, cities are finding hazardous piping problems all over the country. The answer is simple: replace them.

Lead Pipes Found Around the Country: Governments Are Calling for Major Replacement Projects

As cities like Flint and Newark are trying to solve their water contamination problems, cities are finding hazardous piping problems all over the country. The answer is simple: replace them.

The drinking water crises in Newark, NJ and Flint, MI are proving to not be isolated issues. Millions of homes across the U.S. get their water through pipes made with toxic lead, which is particularly dangerous to children.

Replacing the lead pipes that pose these risks is both a simple and complicated answer. At the most basic, it’s about saving lives, removing the threat, and the fact that previous water treatment solutions are not working.

The city of Newark is at a loss, and replacing the city’s pipes is the only next option. As Newark works to develop a plan and funding for pipe replacements, officials around the U.S. are urging many other communities across the nation to replace lead pipes, not just those dealing with health crises.  

Cities like Flint and Newark dealing with water contamination issues firsthand have relied on the theory of treating the pipes with anti-corrosive agents, thinking that is enough to keep the public out of danger. Done correctly, chemical treatment should be enough to keep water in line with federal regulations, said Peg Gallos, executive director of the Association of Environmental Authorities, a group that represents water utilities. But in cases when chemicals fail to work fully, pipe replacement is the other option, explains one Associated Press article.

Public policy researcher at Texas A&M, Manny Theodoro, told New Jersey lawmakers that replacing pipes is simply a matter of humanity. “It’s hard to come up with an argument against it. Look, lead service line replacement is expensive, but it’s also removing poison from the bodies of ourselves and our children. It’s difficult to think of many things that are more important.”

One argument against this solution, however, is the expense. If cities do replace pipes, there is a massive financial undertaking associated with this. The average replacement of a lead service line ranges between $4,000 and $10,000.

The other issue is the fact that people do not know exactly where these pipes are. Many communities do not have clear maps or inventories of the pipes’ locations, and digging them up is both expensive and time consuming. Experts estimate there could be as many as 10 million lead service lines nationwide, but only five states require maps or inventories of their locations, according to the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators. Many states have set up voluntary reporting.

This means that the majority of U.S. states do not completely know where their pipes are or how much toxic plumbing is serving the public. To put give this a broader perspective: Teodoro estimates there are about 50,000 water systems in the entire U.S., many of them small.

“The biggest problem we face is we don’t know where these lead pipes are,” said Marc Edwards, an environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech University. “In Flint, ultimately we had to dig up every single yard to find out what pipe was there because the records were so bad.”

Mary-Anna Holden said “I asked the superintendent ‘Where’s the map of the system?’ He’s pointing to his head. Like his grandfather and great-grandfather had started the water system so he knew where every valve was.” Holden is a commissioner on New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities.

The city of Newark is making massive moves to fix its lead health crisis, including helping citizens replace their pipes. Newark—like Flint—has many residents living below the poverty line, and most cannot afford to replace pipes themselves. However, with the city’s $120 million loan, homeowners will have to pay little to no money to get new pipes to replace contaminated pipes.

One article from Patch.com explains that Newark’s massive replacement project loan is largely supported by Essex County. The funding will give citizens with contaminated pipes the option of a free pipe replacement within an estimated 30 months or pay an out-of-pocket fee of $1,000 to replace their pipes sooner.

The project is still undergoing City Council approval, but according to Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, if the ordinance is approved, it would make Newark the first U.S. city to roll out such an order. Baraka offered the following details about the ordinance:

This ordinance will protect the health and safety of residents by significantly accelerating lead service line replacement. Property owners can sign up for the Lead Service Line Replacement program, and the work will be accomplished by city contractors at no expense to them. They also have the option of replacing the line at their own expense within 90 days of the ordinance's effective date. When a property owner can't be found or fails to sign up for the program, the city [would be] empowered to take all necessary steps to come on the property, without signed permission, to replace the lead service line.”

The ordinance will not apply to property owners who can demonstrate that lead service line replacement has already been accomplished, or that their property has no lead service line. But even if a handful of owners have replaced their contaminated pipes, the city’s water woes still point to an estimated 18,000 privately-owned homes in the Pequannock service area of Newark.

The issue of lead toxicity in water sources is not a new one. In 1986, Congress banned the use of lead in water pipes, citing lead’s harmful effects on children’s nervous systems. In 1991, federal regulators began requiring water systems to monitor lead levels in drinking water and established a limit of 15 parts per billion.

In Newark, the problem is also not new. Many city schools switched to bottled water because of lead toxicity in 2016. Tests the following year showed that 1 in every 10 Newark homes had almost twice as much lead in their water as is legal by federal standards. Last month, people in 15,000 households were told to drink only bottled water after the EPA warned that the city’s efforts to control contamination weren’t effective.

Despite the overwhelming number of affected homes in places like Newark and Flint, these contaminated pipes are likely all over the country. According to many officials, the consideration of costs and location difficulty are minor compared to the broader picture of saving human lives.
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