lead poisoning, lead contamination, US infrastructure bill

Getting the Lead Out

Ideas and Issues
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April 20, 2021

            New Orleans   I’m not sure that there has ever been a day in America when people could say, “Let Newark lead the way!” If there was, it was a long, long time ago, maybe in the 19th century, but let bygones be bygones and raise a cheer for Newark right now for the job that they have done to get the lead out of their water service pipes. Not only did they get it done, they did it in almost record time and at the lower end of the cost estimates which is worth a bunch of hip-hip-hoorays.

I’m not saying it came easily or was a project arrived at quickly by Newark. Many will remember the horror that in many ways continues in Flint, Michigan, over lead poisoning in their water, which has led to criminal charges against some public officials there. In the bruhaha over Flint, many cities and school districts, mostly under public pressure, looked at the lead levels in their water. Newark was among them, and the rates were off the charts, and, if memory serves, even worse that the Flint numbers, but I don’t want to dampen the celebration over Newark’s accomplishment.

In less than two years Newark was able to replace 18,500 lead service lines at the cost of $7000 per pipe. Normally, the cost range is between $5000 and $10,000 per pipe, so that’s not bad. The two-year timeline though is nothing lees than miraculous, especially when compared to other cities. The Economist notes that,

Chicago has more lead water lines than any other American city; it is substituting them at a snail-like pace of fewer than 800 a year. In Milwaukee, replacement will take decades at its current rate. Buffalo has about 100 miles (160km) of lead pipes delivering water to residents. It replaced 400 lines last year. Madison was ahead of the curve. It began removing its lead pipes in 2001, and took more than a decade to finish.

Of course, it took pressure, lawsuits, general public shaming, and an aggressive city administration to make this happen. Newark had banned lead pipes in 1953, almost 70 years ago, so it’s not that they didn’t realize it was a problem. They just didn’t do much about it. A bond issue from their county government made the difference financially, since the city couldn’t afford it on its own, and a smart city ordinance that allowed replacement without the landlords’ permission also greased the skids.

This could happen everywhere. The Biden administration has included $45 billion in their proposed infrastructure bill to get it done, and that’s huge. In cities like Milwaukee and New Orleans where local and state governments have teamed up to force broke homeowners and marginal landlords to pay the bill, none of us will live to see the day the job is finished.

Clean water is a human right around the world. We should make it a reality in America, and Newark and President Biden are pointing out how to make it happen.