Since 2018, tests have found that scores of homes in Benton Harbor, Michigan, have dangerously high lead levels in their drinking water. With nearly 6,000 known lead service pipes in the city, local officials were left staring at a $30 million problem—a cost many times greater than their annual budget.
The city found some help with a $5.6 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and another $3 million grant from the state. But leaders really began to feel hopeful earlier this month when Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a $200 million proposal for lead pipe replacement throughout the state, including $20 million for Benton Harbor, using federal American Rescue Plan Act money.
Last week, the Republican-led state legislature passed a budget agreement that includes $10 million to work on Benton Harbor’s lead problem, along with $15 million for a statewide fund to address drinking water emergencies.
Scott Dean, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, said Whitmer still hopes to earmark $20 million from the ARPA funds for Benton Harbor, even after the state budget investment. That could put the city of about 10,000, which is one of the poorest cities in Michigan and whose residents are predominantly African American, on track to replace all its lead pipes within five years.
“It's a relief,” said Marcus Muhammad, the city’s mayor. “I know the gravity of the problem, and I'm sitting in the seat of responsibility. For the resources to be here, some in the air and some within sight, but knowing that we're in the process of addressing it is comforting to me.”
Michigan is among many states and cities looking to invest American Rescue Plan Act funds in lead pipe replacement. While lead problems in places such as Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey, have sparked national outrage for years, replacing outdated water infrastructure is expensive and time-consuming for the thousands of communities with contamination problems. The federal money has allowed many governments to jump-start their replacement efforts.
“The American Rescue Plan dollars are transformative,” said Abby Mitch, spokesperson for Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, a Republican. “They are helping us take on projects that were difficult for us to acquire all the capital for at one time.”
Members of Congress and President Joe Biden have pushed to include lead-removal funding in the infrastructure investments still being debated on Capitol Hill. But there’s still little clarity about the scope of the problem and how much it will cost to make the nation’s drinking water lead-free—let alone the time it will take to do the work, even if funding is available.
Many municipalities and utilities are still trying to determine whether and where they have lead pipes, and local leaders say they lack the resources to quickly replace lead lines without steep increases in residents’ water bills. Some states have offered funding help to hard-hit communities, but legislators, local officials and advocates all agree that billions more in federal funding will be needed to truly address the problem.
In Michigan, Republican lawmakers have proposed a $600 million grant program for lead pipe replacement with the federal money. But they may alter their funding strategy, as grants typically require communities to put up matching dollars—a requirement that could be a hurdle for low-income cities.
While Benton Harbor has fewer lead pipes than some larger Michigan cities, the problem there has greater urgency because of the toxic lead levels found in the drinking water.
Lead contamination can happen when old pipes corrode, leaching the metal into water bound for homes and schools. Lead poisoning poses a serious health risk, and can cause nervous system damage, learning disabilities and other health problems, especially in children.
Not all cities with lead pipes have found the same alarmingly high toxicity in their drinking water as Benton Harbor, but replacing all lead lines is ultimately the only long-term way to ensure the water is safe.
Underserved communities across the country share Benton Harbor’s challenges.
“It's truly an environmental justice problem,” said Erik Olson, who leads a drinking water protection campaign with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental nonprofit. “Drinking water violations disproportionately hit low-income communities and communities of color.”
In Bloomington, Indiana, city leaders are using $700,000 in federal stimulus money to inventory water lines throughout the city, the first step in a campaign to find and replace lead pipes. Much of the money will help the city buy a vacuum truck to conduct hydro-excavation work to inspect pipes.
Without the federal funding, said Bloomington Utilities Director Vic Kelson, the city would not have been able to begin its inventory work until next year. Kelson hopes the current inspections will help the city qualify for more federal money if lead-removal dollars are included in an infrastructure bill.
“The closer we can be to being shovel-ready, we hope we will be more likely to be eligible for funding,” Kelson said. “You've got to do your homework before you can get the money to do the job. The ARP funding has been a vehicle for us to accelerate that process.”
Officials in Duluth, Minnesota, have earmarked more than $11 million of the federal relief funds for lead remediation. The money will help replace water meters and pipes, while also creating a loan program to help homeowners remove lead lines on private property.
“This funding was a game-changer,” said Jim Benning, the city’s director of Public Works and Utilities. “[Without it], we would be at a much, much slower pace or we would have to have a rate increase that would be unacceptable to the users.”
Even with the federal boost, it’s still likely to take decades to replace all of Duluth’s lead pipes, because the work is so time-consuming and labor-intensive, he said.
“You can physically only do so many a year,” Benning said.
Illinois and New Jersey passed laws this year requiring the replacement of all their lead service lines, the pipes that connect households to water mains.
The New Jersey bill passed without opposition, and the Illinois measure passed with a wide majority, though it faced pushback from some Republicans who felt it created a mandate without providing a funding source.
“Without funding, you are making a promise to people you can’t fulfill,” Republican state Rep. Steve Reick told the Chicago Tribune.
Both Illinois and New Jersey are expected to use American Rescue Plan Act funds to speed up their work.
New Jersey state Sen. Troy Singleton, a Democrat, sponsored the measure that will require all lead lines to be replaced within 10 years. The law eliminates some restrictions on utilities’ assessment and bonding procedures, allowing them to bring in more revenue to complete their work. Lead pipe replacement could cost as much as $3 billion statewide, Singleton said, but federal funds—from both the stimulus bill and a future infrastructure package—could help take the burden off local governments and ratepayers.
“The ability to have the federal government step forward and provide the resources necessary to take this from a concept to concrete action is significant,” he said.
The lead-replacement law in Illinois will require water systems to replace pipes on a time frame determined by the number of lead lines in their system. Democratic state Rep. Lamont Robinson, the bill’s sponsor, said state leaders are using ARPA money to create a pilot program to replace lead lines in Chicago and Springfield.
“Everyone should be able to turn on the faucet and have clean drinking water,” he said.
‘Will It Become a Logjam?’
While state and local governments hope for more federal funding, the fate of the infrastructure bill passed by the U.S. Senate earlier this summer remains uncertain. That bill would provide $15 billion for lead pipe removal.
Meanwhile, the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted earlier this month to include $30 billion for lead removal in a budget reconciliation package. That combined $45 billion in funding hangs in the balance as both bills remain in the midst of a congressional standoff.
The American Water Works Association, a Denver-based nonprofit that provides advocacy and education on water quality issues, estimates lead pipe removal nationwide could cost $60 billion. Even that number could prove to be low, as the prevalence of lead lines is still unknown in many places and replacement costs can vary widely by location.
“Having these federal funds is very important to accelerating lead service line replacement,” said Steve Via, the group’s director of federal relations. “If you do it at the normal pace of available funding in a community, you end up talking about timelines that are two or three decades long.”
Another issue is the many lead pipes on private property—health hazards that many homeowners cannot afford to replace. Fixing those pipes can cost several thousand dollars per household.
Many state and municipal leaders say their laws forbid the use of public funds to help private individuals, although some have changed those rules specifically to address lead issues.
Olson, the NRDC advocate, disputes that understanding, pointing to a Harvard Law School paper that found “no explicit legal barriers” to replacing lines on private property. However, like the local leaders, he said that federal funding would likely be the best way to address the issue.
In Illinois, which has the country’s highest known amount of lead pipes, the work to replace lead lines could create 4,400 to 11,000 jobs annually, according to the Metropolitan Planning Council, a Chicago-based research and advocacy nonprofit.
“It's going to be super critical that the economic activity created by this bill is benefiting people in the communities most affected by lead exposure,” said Justin Williams, the group’s policy manager. “Federal funding is going to be the biggest accelerant to getting this work done on the quickest possible time frame.”
But even if Congress were to send out billions of dollars tomorrow, Via said, it’s unclear how quickly that would speed up lead-removal work because of a potential labor shortage.
“The water sector faces a worker shortage like a lot of other industrial sectors right now,” he said. “Will it become a logjam? That’s a challenge we’ll have to face.”
Olson was more optimistic that the work can be done quickly, saying a 10-year timeline is realistic. He pointed to Newark, which created an apprentice program with a union to train local workers, many of whom were previously unemployed. The city has managed to replace nearly all of its 23,000 lead service lines in just two years.
“This is exactly the kind of good-paying infrastructure job that a lot of folks are hoping for, and it can be pretty expeditious to get a training process and up and running,” he said. “It's really just a question of American can-do attitude and being willing to go ahead and make it work.”