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White House unveils plan to replace every lead pipe in the U.S.

Up to 10 million households, schools and care facilities get their drinking water through lead pipes, and each pipe can cost thousands of dollars to replace.
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden promised his infrastructure proposal would replace every lead pipe in the country. Now the White House says it has a plan to deliver, despite a significant funding gap.

The administration’s plan for lead pipes and paints, unveiled by Vice President Kamala Harris in a speech Thursday, illustrates how officials are hoping to cobble together enough money to meet Biden’s goal through sources like the infrastructure law, Covid relief funding and the president’s stalled Build Back Better bill.

As many as 10 million U.S. households, schools and care facilities get their drinking water through lead pipes, and each pipe can cost thousands of dollars to replace. Lead poisoning can cause serious health problems, especially for children, whose physical and mental development can be severely affected.

The amount of funding at Biden’s disposal may determine whether the president can deliver on an issue that has come to symbolize how infrastructure shortfalls have disproportionately put low-income and minority communities at risk, especially in the wake of water crises in Flint, Mich., and Newark, N.J.

Senior administration officials briefing reporters ahead of Harris’ speech insisted they have sufficient resources to replace within a decade what they estimated were between 6 million and 10 million lead pipes and service lines. The exact number is unknown.

Replacing all of them could cost more than $60 billion, according to an estimate from the American Water Works Association, which represents water suppliers.

Biden initially sought $45 billion from Congress to complete the task. In the end, Biden got only $15 billion for lead pipes as part of the bipartisan infrastructure bill he signed into law last month.

Earlier in the year, Biden had cast the project as an economic win, saying it would “put plumbers and pipefitters to work.”

“It’s going to replace 100 percent of the nation’s lead water pipes so that every child and every American could turn on the faucet at home or at school and drink clean water,” Biden said in June.

The White House plan says the administration intends to augment the $15 billion from the infrastructure law with another $15 billion for pipes and paint in the Build Back Better Act, Biden’s domestic spending package that’s currently stalled in the Senate after passing the House in a largely party-line vote.

Senate Democrats are struggling to get everyone on their side of the aisle behind the $1.7 trillion bill, with moderate Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., balking over the price tag and economic effects of another massive surge in federal spending.

The White House plan for lead pipes and paints also counts on states deciding to use their share of a $350 billion pot of money from the American Rescue Plan, a Covid-relief stimulus bill passed in March, on removing lead pipes. On Thursday, the Treasury Department is expected to publicly clarify that states, territories and tribes may use that funding for lead pipes. Still, the administration can’t force states to use it for that purpose, and it’s likely much of it has already been spent on other projects.

Harris announced the strategy during a visit to AFL-CIO headquarters, just down the street from the White House on Black Lives Matter Plaza.

“There is no reason in the 21st century for why people are still exposed to this substance that was poisoning people back in the 18th century,” Harris said. She added that more than half of American children under six are at risk of lead exposure.

In a parallel step to accelerate the replacement of dangerous old pipes, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce Thursday it will put forth new, stronger regulations on drinking water and lead and copper pipes, senior administration officials said.

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., said her suburban Detroit district has at least 10,000 lead service lines, and possibly twice that number.

“I’ve had parents come up to me with tears in their eyes, worried for the wellbeing of their children because there is lead in the school’s water,” Dingell said. “This is unacceptable.”