Lead Pipe Poisoning Should be a Priority

ACORN International Canada Tenants

            Stoney Lake, Ontario      The ACORN Canada organizers spent a lot of time on their agenda discussing various strategies to implement retrofits by our members in Eco-Tenant Unions organizing and pressuring landlords to get the job done.  In the discussion, a common complaint surfaced.  Where the tenants paid the water utility, called hydro in Canada, the landlord had no incentive to make retrofits a priority, even if there were money provided to ease the strain.  Additionally, many big landlords with the connivance of regulators had moved to submetering, meaning that they had begun assessing the common water bill to the individual tenants in order to transfer the costs to them.  The submetering system is done by a company called Wise, which also lards on additional charges for one thing after another to pad their pockets.  The tenant has no choice but to use and pay Wise, at least if they want water.  Organizers were tearing their hair out in frustration.

This problem of landlords unwilling to protect their tenants echoed some of the nagging, consistent poisoning of tenants and others because of lead pipe infrastructure across America.  If no one is making them replace lead pipes, they are unwilling to move on the program.  President Biden has made lead pipe removal a major plank in his infrastructure program as well as his effort to support lower income families and racial justice $15 billion in the infrastructure bill was earmarked for lead pipe removal and another $12 billion for clean water.  Furthermore, a requirement for the funds was that half of the money had to go to “disadvantaged communities,” but the definition of what constitutes such a community was left to cities and states. At the local level, many also required cost sharing for removal, which added a burden on lower income homeowners and money-grubbing landlords, who could ignore their tenants’ pleas for clean water.  All of this has slowed the progress of removal, even with money available.

Everyone agrees that any level of lead in water can be dangerous and debilitating, especially to the very young and the very old, but that doesn’t seem to make it a public service and public health priority.  Some places have made a plan and a commitment.  The Times reports that “Communities in Oregon, Washington, New Jersey and elsewhere have committed to getting rid of lead from water. Newark, N.J., replaced all 23,000 of its lead service lines with copper lines in 2021, in part by securing millions in bonds and adopting an ordinance that would allow it to replace lines without an owner’s consent.”  In the classic downstate versus Chicago theme of its politics, “in Illinois, a local government would only qualify if it served at most 25,000 residents. Chicago has more than 2.6 million.”  The water commissioner in Chicago says their plan is to get rid of lead pipes by 2050, sentencing almost a generation to the risk of poisoning in the city with over 400,000 lead pipes that need to be removed, the most in the country.

Climate change is a collective and systemic emergency, so increasingly attention must be paid.  Lead poisoning is a public health crisis, but experienced inordinately by lower income and minority families, so somehow, it’s not an emergency, but something that policymakers and pencil pushers can postpone and ignore for decades, even as the federal government throws money at a solution.  Something is seriously wrong with this picture, and what it says about our priorities on both counts, because both are failures of action.  We all know better, but either can’t afford to do better or, in the case of politicians, aren’t willing to make the rules and enforce them for the public good, if there is any pushback from private interests.

We can’t keep letting them get away with this.