A new EPA rule to reduce lead in drinking water will cost utilities, ratepayers, and homeowners around $80 billion.
The Biden Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed new regulations requiring the removal of lead water pipes throughout the country. Lead is a known neurotoxin, and it drew national attention when it leached from pipes into the tap water of Flint, Michigan, residents nearly a decade ago.
Through the early 1900s, the use of lead pipes for interior plumbing was common in the United States. Copper pipes replaced them in residential plumbing during the 1930s, but until 1986, lead-based solder and lead-bearing fixtures were often used to join copper pipes. Lead-free solder and plumbing are now required by federal law in all new household plumbing and repairs, but buildings constructed prior to 1986 potentially include lead components in their plumbing, which the new regulation would affect.
Today, lead pipes are most commonly found in urban residential areas, with ownership of the pipes divided between utilities, which own pipes that run to the houses, and homeowners. Some cities have already begun initiatives to replace lead pipes and removed city-owned pipes, but many homeowners have balked at the thousands of dollars needed to replace those for which they are responsible. In many communities, local rules forbid spending public money to upgrade private property.
Current EPA regulations now have five substantial provisions:
The EPA estimates the cost to replace all affected pipes will be around $80 billion over the 10-year timeline. This burden will be borne by state taxpayers, utility ratepayers, and homeowners.
The rule will directly affect homeowners because the replacement requirement encompasses all pipes on private property, not just the main waterline. Replacing the customer-owned side of a service line can cost between $1,500 to $5,500, depending on the location of the water line and the amount of dirt and concrete that must be removed. Many homeowners would also face replacement of their entire plumbing systems. In a typical 2,000-square-foot home, that cost can average between $5,000 to $15,000.
According to the EPA, states will be responsible for costs related to implementation, administration, water sampling, corrosion control treatment, service line inventory, and replacement, along with public education activities (see Exhibit 13). The Federal government has set aside $15 billion for lead service line replacement (LSLR), along with $11.7 billion for the EPA’s state revolving funds. However, even these funds fall short of the total cost states and local governments will incur when replacing all lead pipes and connectors. Iowa’s projected price tag is $1.35 billion.
Not only are state and local governments responsible for the replacement, but any funding assistance they receive from the Federal government comes with added costs. Davis-Bacon prevailing wage requirements, apprenticeship and youth training hiring requirements, and requirements to adopt collective bargaining agreements, local hiring provisions, project labor agreements, and community benefits agreements are all incorporated in the rule, which drives up the cost.
Why This Matters
Nobody wants lead in drinking water. The health problems are well documented, and support is unanimous to do something about these contaminants. When the Federal government issues rules like this, however, it takes decisions away from local utilities and state policymakers, who know how best to help their constituents. Complex problems that affect individuals and areas differently and mix public and private infrastructure call for federalism —a clear division between the responsibility of the states and the federal government.
Iowa communities have already begun the process of solving the problem of lead. Des Moines Water Works, for instance, has implemented a pilot program in the River Bend neighborhood to explore the methods that work best for citizens.
The state’s oldest city, Dubuque, estimates over 5,700 lead service lines will require replacement, with a cost hitting $48 million. While city officials have set this goal, they do not believe residents can bear an increase in water utility rates and so have created a pilot program to replace 575 to gather lessons learned before a larger-scale replacement project.
Many hurdles stand between identifying lead pipes and completing their replacement, the rights of individual property owners not the least. The local water utility superintendent from Glenwood, for example, expressed concern in an interview about the cost for ratepayers and the ability to enforce compliance if homeowners refuse to replace their lead pipes. Local officials don’t want to turn into the water police, but they also don’t want to face federal regulators waving water quality tests.
While the federal government is providing some funding to offset the costs of its policy, the burden falls squarely on local utility ratepayers. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has asked utilities not to bill residents for lead line replacement, but utilities rely on increased rates for funding, which simply passes the cost to others, who may have voluntarily replaced their own plumbing systems already.
The Glenwood superintendent anticipates only 10% of his 2,600 ratepayers still have an issue with lead pipes, but replacing them represents a significant cost for a small community with a population of around 5,000. When mandates roll down from Washington, D.C., they land on countless small communities that, like Glenwood, are not equipped to handle the challenge alone.