By Angela Vullo

October 3, 2019–On September 23, 2019, Illinois State Representative Mary Flowers called for an emergency hearing in Chicago to determine the causes of lead contamination in the city’s drinking water.

Contaminated Water Crisis Surfaces in Chicago
Leaking pipes like this are also often contaminated with lead.

Chicago has now joined Flint, Newark, and many other American cities in exposing the deadly threat of lead contamination. Flowers said, “It is unconscionable that drinking water in Chicago still contains dangerous levels of lead.  This puts many in harm’s way through no fault of their own, and it is shameful that lead contamination continues to threaten our children and families across our city. Chicago must do better.” According to her press release,

The hearing will investigate how and why the water supply in the city’s neighborhoods, especially its South and West sides where more African-American families reside, contains some degree of lead poisoning.

Following a shocking discovery of lead contamination in homes this summer, the city of Chicago suspended additional installations of water meters.  Seven percent of metered homes were found to have lead in their water that exceeds federal safety limits.

This is not the first time Flowers has taken a lead in the fight for vital infrastructure.  Earlier this year, she introduced a resolution into the Illinois state legislature, calling upon Congress to create a national infrastructure bank to address our infrastructure needs. The resolution passed in April and was followed by the passage of similar resolutions in Alabama and South Carolina.

A look at the national scope of the crisis underscores the necessity for just such a national infrastructure bank, capable of funding the trillions of dollars of repairs, upgrades, and replacements of basic economic infrastructure upon which the health of the nation depends.

A National Problem

A news item in Clare, Michigan September 26 reported by News 10 cited that “[L]ead was discovered during a state mandated pipe inventory and inspection. Clare City manager Ken Hibl says six service lines in downtown Clare are made of lead, and two of them carry water that exceeds drinking water safety standards. Hibl pointed out that the water itself is clean, and the lines themselves leaching the harmful lead.”  Clare City is in a rural county in the northern part of the state.

A similar argument was made by Newark Mayor Baraka. “The drinking water is safe. In fact, Newark has some of the best drinking water. The problem is that our infrastructure is not safe.”  He also contends, as Rep. Flowers does, that the affected locations are “older black and brown cities with limited resources.”

Unfortunately, a large portion of the contaminated water pipes are not just in the homes, but in the public schools.  Despite the fact that it’s common knowledge that water contaminated with lead causes permanent brain damage in children, the problem continues to fester.

Contaminated Water Crisis Surfaces in Chicago
A Chicago resident reacts to the contaminated water crisis.

Take the case of North Carolina, for example.

The News Observer, which is based in Raleigh, reported on September 16 that “North Carolina was among 22 states that got an “F” grade for not getting rid of lead from school drinking water, according to Environment America Research & Policy Center and U.S. PIRG Education Fund.” The paper elaborated:

Lead was found in two NC school districts, along with “sixteen percent of the 86 childcare centers in Wake, Durham, Orange and Guilford counties tested by RTI International found high levels of lead in the drinking water.

This week, Environment North Carolina released a back-to-school toolkit that gives the public information on how to get the lead out of schools.

The toolkit encourages people to contact schools about taking steps such as testing their drinking water for lead. Other suggestions include asking schools to install filters on taps and replace pipes, plumbing, fountains and/or fixtures that contain lead.

Violations Abound

In exposing the magnitude of the water crisis, the University of California published an article on September 5, 2019 which gave a national overview. The article reported:

While most water systems in the United States provide reliable, high-quality drinking water, our research has shown that as of a few years ago, 21 million people in the United States relied on water from utilities with health violations. Why? Infrastructures are aging, environmental hazards are evolving, and cities lack the funds to make fixes.

Since it began regulating lead in 1991, the Environmental Protection Agency has reported nearly 7,000 violations of the federal Lead and Copper Rule, which sets maximum levels of these metals in drinking water. Of these violations, 4,110 occurred in community water systems, which serve people year-round. Another 2,639 were recorded in non-community water systems that serve places like schools. The violations have fluctuated over two decades, showing no clear downward trend.

Although violations in cities are rare, six communities with populations of 100,000 people or more had water with too much lead and copper, including Portland, Oregon; Providence, Rhode Island; and systems in northern New Jersey, Mississippi, and Wisconsin.

Very high lead levels tend to appear in very small communities. Three towns with fewer than 3,000 people — two in Michigan and one in Utah — experienced levels over 100 times the regulatory limit.

Emergency measures during the Flint water crisis (dreamstime)

A Long-Standing Problem

None of these current revelations should be news. The problem of lead pipe contamination was identified at least as far back as 1986. Then a Sept. 25 news article in the NonProfit Quarterly (NPQ) reported on what happened:

Congress, in 1986, reacting to indisputable scientific evidence, banned the use of lead pipes in an amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act. But—and this is particularly relevant for older, poor and minority neighborhoods with aging school buildings—the law did not compel schools to replace existing lead pipes. Admittedly, in 1988, Congress moved to require states to develop plans to eliminate lead in schools and daycare centers. But eight years later, a federal appeals court struck down the law arguing that it violated the Tenth Amendment. Now, the federal EPA is only responsible for ensuring that public water systems are lead-free before the water reaches a school’s pipes.

This year, a report from the nonprofit Environment America reviewed 32 states’ laws and regulations for protecting children from lead in water at school. 22 states got an F grade, ranging from Alabama and Louisiana to Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Vermont. Higher grades of C+ were given to California and New York because they require schools to test for lead, include enforcement measures, provide clear guidance for how the testing should be conducted, and specify what agencies are responsible for which tasks.

Who will pay?

When it comes to solving the problem, the NPQ contends:

It’s a game of passing the buck. Schools want districts to pay; districts want the state to pay; the states, in turn, want someone else to pay. The responsibility to pay for testing now overwhelmingly falls on cash-strapped school districts. Lawmakers in California, trying to get statewide mandatory school lead testing, were strongly opposed by some school districts. And in that state, only 11 percent of the 13,000 K–12 schools signed up for free testing after it became available in early 2019. The Maryland Association of Board of Education opposed that state’s lead testing bill since the costs would be too burdensome on the districts. Testing costs are significant; the Texas Education Agency estimates that annual water testing would cost $22 million annually—$2,500 per school—and remediation costs could be far more substantial and time-consuming. Particularly hard hit would be smaller school districts with tight budgets.

Contaminated Water Crisis Surfaces in Chicago
Water treatment plant (dreamstime)

The first problem involves actually determining where the contaminated pipes exist. The University of California article presents the situation as follows:

At treatment plants, lead levels often are acceptable — but then they rise as water flows through service lines. Acidic water can corrode lead pipes and carry lead that leaches from them to the tap. Utilities can’t fully control the problem because property owners usually own the pipes that connect homes to the water mains.

Until the 1950s, lead pipes to houses were common. By 1986 they were banned, but old lead pipes remain — and are corroding — across the country, especially in the Northeast, Midwest and older urban areas.

Nearly one-third of water systems in the U.S. report that at least some of their service lines contain lead.  The exact number of lead service lines is estimated at 7 to 11 million — more than 50,000 miles of lead pipes. This would mean that service lines to the homes of about 15 to 22 million people, or 7 percent of those served by a community water system, could contain lead.

More than one in five utilities do not know whether lead service lines exist for the homes they serve. Addressing this problem will require the federal government to update regulations, while states improve monitoring and enforcement. The EPA does not require lead testing in schools, and sampling procedures at community water systems can be inconsistent.

The article goes on to note that some ameliorative measures are not very expensive. “Water treatments to adjust pH and lessen corrosion can be effective in reducing exposure to lead. They are required in cities of more than 50,000 and in smaller systems with violations. Flint’s system lacked proper corrosion control, which would have cost only about US $100 per day.”

But the permanent solution would involve replacing lead pipes nationwide. According to the UC article, this “would cost $16 billion to $80 billion. Utilities that cannot reduce lead levels through corrosion control are legally required to replace pipes at a rate of 7 percent yearly. However, they only have to pay for replacing pipes they own. Many homeowners decline to pay for their portion, which can cost between $1,000 and $12,000.”

Water fountains in Flint, Michigan schools.

The article further notes that “partial replacements can worsen conditions by disrupting pipelines and dislodging lead. Nonetheless, some cities have launched replacement programs. Others, including Detroit, Denver and Newark, have taken steps to identify and inventory lead pipes in their service areas.”

An FDR-style Solution

Members of the Coalition for a National Infrastructure Bank have a better idea. They testified before the Education Committee in the New Jersey legislature in the spring of 2019, where both the water and the opioid crisis in the schools was being aired, and provided an alternative to the band-aid “solutions” being proposed, which boiled down to calling for more water filters and Narcan.

As a bold alternative, members of the coalition laid out a plan whereby an infusion of federal funds would be directed into the states through the creation of a National Infrastructure Bank.  The bank would rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, including the water systems and the schools overall. This type of infrastructure bank was last used by Franklin Roosevelt, when he used the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to fund the New Deal.  Among all the national projects that FDR built under the New Deal were multiple water projects, along with 40,000 schools.

This is precisely what we need today. The New Jersey legislature has joined sixteen other states where resolutions have been introduced. A resolution calling for a National Infrastructure Bank passed the Trenton City Council in February 2019, followed by the Mercer County Board of Freeholders in August.  Michigan is the most recent state legislature to file a resolution for the bank, with a special emphasis on schools and water as part of our national infrastructure needs.

Draft legislation for a National Infrastructure Bank calls for $4 trillion to begin solving the overall crisis, based on an estimate of $4.6 trillion by 2025, by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). They estimate $1 trillion to address the water crisis alone.  Cornell University says that the costs will increase 4-5 times within 8-10 years if we wait.  The $4 trillion would merely get us up to a state of good repair.  Much more would be required to give us a solid footing into 21st Century technology.

Contaminated Water Crisis Surfaces in Chicago
A new water treatment plant in Ithaca, New York

The proposed bank specifically addresses the problem of lack of funds into small communities.  It calls for 10 per cent of federal credit to be directed into areas of the country where 20 per cent of the population has lived in poverty for thirty years or more. This conception was originated by Congressman James Clyburn with his 10/20/30 formula to fight poverty.

A Warning

This current crisis is not “water under the bridge”, and it is just one of many areas that needs to be addressed in dealing with our crumbling infrastructure.

We are long overdue in applying our greatest tools, whether they be our labor force or our children, toward this national mission to secure our future.

Once upon a time in America our children happily carried their lunch buckets and pencil boxes to school, with the goal of achieving an education.  Now, the report cards come out in advance, warning them that if they drink the school’s water, they could get brain damage. What a way to learn.



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