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Thanks to the passage of the infrastructure bill and the American Rescue Plan, the District is set to receive millions in federal funding with the goal of completely removing lead pipes from its infrastructure by 2030. 

However, both the city and advocates say the available money falls far short of what is needed to address the full amount of lead pipes and lead-based paint found in properties and public space across D.C. 

Exposure to lead causes a variety of health consequences, and properties with lead pipes and lead-based paint are most common in the District’s poorest wards. 

The total estimated cost of Lead Free D.C., a plan to remove lead from the District’s water infrastructure, is about $1 billion, according to D.C. Water’s vice president for marketing and communications, John Lisle. That means the federal funds the District anticipates receiving for this purpose — $28 million annually over the next five years from the infrastructure package, and $10 million annually from fiscal year 2021 to 2023 from the American Rescue Plan — will cover only a fraction of the total cost of removing the District’s remaining lead service lines, Lisle said

In December, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris released the Lead Pipe and Paint Action Plan, which is a nationwide initiative to remove all lead pipes and paint in the next decade. DC Water’s goal, set in 2019, is to remove all lead service lines by 2030.

The Biden administration’s plan directs the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to fund projects aimed at “removing lead-based paint and other hazards from homes in low-income communities.” Additionally, the plan designates $15 billion of direct funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law for lead service line replacements through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (SRF), administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; there’s also another $11.7 billion in SRF funding available for projects that could include replacement of lead pipes. 

DC Water says $632 million in its 10-year Capital Improvement Plan will be allocated for water main replacements — enough funding to replace approximately 130 miles of water mains as well as 5,827 lead service lines (20% of all lead service lines). Additionally, the District has committed $30 million from the American Rescue Plan to pay for private side removal of lead service lines. 

Amid the promise of substantial federal investments, some advocacy groups are disappointed by the lack of oversight in managing the funds that the District has previously received for removal of lead infrastructure. For example, the District received grant funding via HUD for lead paint abatement beginning in 2012. After two Lead Hazard Reduction Demonstration grant disbursements of more than $6 million each, the local program was shut down and restructured. Only 35 of the 225 units slated for remediation were addressed, according to an auditor’s report.

Larry Martin, the conservation chair of the D.C. chapter of the Sierra Club, welcomes the federal spending but says that management — not money — is the major impediment locally. Programs established by the D.C. Council have not fulfilled their purpose due to sluggish implementation, he said.

“We have more concerns about the way the programs are being run in the District,” Martin said. “We passed a law in 2019 authorizing lead pipe replacement in low- and moderate-income housing. There were a few million dollars set aside for this. It doesn’t appear that we’ve spent it all. So money doesn’t seem to be the problem.” 

The Sierra Club and other environmental watchdogs in D.C. are sounding the alarm for environmental justice with regards to lead in paint and water pipes. They are bewildered about why the District has not done more to address these issues that were present long before the infrastructure bill was introduced. What’s worse, they say, is that these problems seem to plague the most vulnerable sections of the city: low- and moderate-income areas that are home mostly to D.C.’s Black residents.

Neil Boyer, who chairs the Environmental and Climate Justice Committee of the NAACP’s D.C. chapter, said the group’s members are highly concerned about this issue because of its effect on the health outcomes of Black residents that are documented in the “Health Equity Report for the District of Columbia 2018.” “The reason why we, the NAACP, are focusing on wards 5, 6, 7, and 8 is because these wards have 63% of the Black population in D.C. But when you look at [the data], those areas also have the highest rates of morbidity and the lowest life expectancy.  Who is accountable for this?”

A history of lead issues

Lead pipes have been a concern for decades in the District. In 2004, Washington residents experienced one of the most severe water contamination crises in the nation. The lead levels in thousands of homes were higher than levels during the subsequent crisis in Flint, Michigan, according to Valerie Baron, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an appointed member of the D.C. Lead Service Line Planning Task Force, and a former advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 1. The task force is a development team that helps plan the logistics behind lead service line removal with the 2030 goal in mind.

“We all know how bad that was,” Baron said of the situation in Michigan. “It’s really important that people remember that not even 20 years ago, it was worse than that here, and those pipes by and large are still in the ground.”

In the District, changes in the water treatment process helped ease the immediate crisis, which had included warnings not to drink tap water in homes with lead service lines without filtering it first, particularly for children. Meanwhile, D.C. Water began the process of removing lead pipes in public spaces and the connections to people’s homes.

For many years, however, the District would conduct a partial replacement: D.C. Water would install a new water main beneath the public street, but not a new service line on private property — unless the affected homeowner had the funds to also replace the service line. Water service lines are small pipes that connect to the water mains, which run parallel to or under the street. This program was inherently inequitable, Baron said. 

“With this approach, the burden of lead pipe remains disproportionately on poor communities and communities of color,” she said in an interview. 

Water is just one way that lead can prove dangerous to human health — peeling paint is also a clear risk, particularly to children. 

Like many jurisdictions across the United States, the District has had a long-standing problem with lead-based paint and its removal from public housing and private properties that were built before 1978, when the federal government banned its use. At least 96% of conventional public housing units were built before 1978. In a 2020 report, the Office of the D.C. Auditor highlighted several deficiencies in the execution of the D.C. Housing Authority’s lead risk assessments. These findings showed that DCHA failed to clear lead-based paint within the time limits set by the DC Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE).

NAACP’s Boyer said the failures come at the expense of the District’s most vulnerable residents. He added that more scrutiny is needed on the related issue of what D.C. is doing to ensure private property owners — particularly those receiving government money — comply with federal and local requirements.

“The auditor made four findings that DCHA is not adhering to D.C. or federal laws requiring lead remediation,” Boyer said. “This is public housing. What about the housing that receives Section 8 vouchers? That is private housing. What about the houses for people who are homeless or have substance abuse issues? If DCHA is not adhering to local and federal legislation in its own properties, what about all the properties that are receiving public money? That’s the context that we need to look at when it comes to lead exposure.”

The auditor’s report that Boyer referenced revealed that D.C. officials missed several steps laid out in HUD’s Lead Safe Housing Rule

  • DCHA failed to act within 90 days to remove or sand down and paint over lead-based paint hazards identified in units and common areas such as hallways and staircases where children under the age of 6 lived.
  • DCHA failed to address nearly half (48%) of the lead-related work orders within 30 days.  
  • DCHA did not conduct the lead-based paint inspections required annually and when units turn over.
  • DOEE did not inspect complaints made about public housing, leaving DCHA to monitor its own compliance with local lead laws.

Critics have also faulted the District’s progress in removing lead service lines. After years of complaints about an inequitable process, D.C. lawmakers passed legislation at the end of 2018 requiring D.C. Water to offer homeowners a chance to remove lead-based service lines on their property whenever the city replaced the adjacent pipes. 

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, one of the new law’s proponents, said removing lead pipes is an equity issue.

“There is no safe level of exposure to lead,” said Cheh, who chairs the council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment. “Every child should have access to safe drinking water, but we know that communities of color and low-income families are at heightened risk of lead exposure and lead poisoning.”

One group that is highly affected by lead is children. Whether it’s water from lead pipes that is used to make baby formula or lead-based paint chips and dust laying around the home, children are susceptible to ingestion. According to DOEE, 151 children under the age of 6 in D.C. had elevated blood lead levels in 2021. That’s a slight increase from the three prior years — in 2018 the total was 143, compared with 135 in 2019 and 144 in 2020. 

Exposure to lead can cause behavior problems, hearing issues and anemia in children, according to the EPA. Exposure during pregnancy can lead to premature birth or reduced growth of the fetus. In adults, exposure can cause cardiovascular issues and decreased kidney function. 

Following passage of the Lead Water Service Line Replacement and Disclosure Amendment Act, DC Water released its “Lead Free DC” plan in the fall of 2019. The initiative comprises three separate programs, the first of which provides funds for D.C. Water-initiated replacements during planned capital improvement work and emergency repairs. Last year, D.C. Water began replacing lead service lines and water mains on a block-by-block basis through this program, under which the government bears the full cost of private-side replacement. Wards 7 and 8 are being prioritized, according to Lisle. 

The bill also required the establishment of a payment assistance program for property owners. Under the Lead Pipe Replacement Assistance Program, eligible homeowners can initiate replacements on their private property, with the District paying between 50% and 100% of the private-side replacement costs based on income and household size. 

The third part of the initiative is the Voluntary Full Replacement Program, through which homeowners ineligible for assistance can initiate and pay for replacements on the public and private sides of the property. 

Larry Martin of the Sierra Club is concerned about the lack of coordination between District agencies that are involved in the lead remediation: DOEE, which manages the grant program, and DC Water, which handles the pipe replacements. He is also concerned about inadequate outreach so far to low- and moderate-income homeowners about the existence of the lead pipe replacement program. 

“We just need to ask some hard questions. Maybe people [in the government] aren’t doing as much as they could do. And we may discover that the problem is bigger than we realize. A hearing [by the D.C. Council] would help with that,” Martin suggested. 

The federal government’s investment in lead replacement is its largest to date and a “big step” in the right direction, according to Julian Gonzalez, a water policy lobbyist with the national nonprofit Earthjustice. 

“Hopefully, it’s not the last big investment,” he said. 

The 2030 goal to remove all lead service lines seems to be feasible, but only if the District government prioritizes the project, Gonzalez said. Speaking more broadly, he said the goal should be universal across the country. 

What to expect with the block-by-block initiative

D.C. Water is seeking to minimize the hassles involved in testing and removing lead service lines, Lisle said. 

While going block-by-block, D.C. Water will also be testing pipes of unknown materials. On the public side, about 14,000 lines are of unknown material, and about 16,000 are unknown on the private side. There are about 28,000 lead service lines and 101,000 non-lead service lines in the District. 

The first step is obtaining an agreement from the homeowner to test and/or replace the water lines on their property. 

“The most important thing for people to understand is that this really is a fantastic opportunity to have their lead service lines replaced,” Lisle said. “It’s really important that people take advantage of the opportunity when it’s presented.”

Residents can stay in their homes during construction and yards will be fully restored once the work is complete, Lisle said. The replacement will be completed in a matter of hours, and the work requires digging only a few holes, not an entire trench, he said. 

“It’s not a terribly disruptive process,” Lisle said. 


This article was co-published with The DC Line.


In our Jan. 12 print edition which featured this story, Larry Martin was incorrectly listed as the president of the Sierra Club. He is the conservation chair.