Biden Administration Releases $2.9 Billion in Infrastructure Funds to Remove Lead Pipes

The Biden administration announced plans on Thursday to eliminate lead from the nation's drinking water with an infrastructure bill that would dedicate $2.9 billion to the removal of lead pipes.

White House officials reported that an estimated 10 million U.S. homes receive water via lead pipes. Lead from these pipes has been known to seep into drinking water, poisoning people in places such as Flint, Michigan.

According to the World Health Organization, lead poisoning, even in smaller quantities, can be especially dangerous to children, as it can affect brain development and cause behavioral changes, along with a host of other health complications.

"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," Vice President Kamala Harris said in remarks delivered Thursday.

The administration has a 10-year goal of replacing every lead service line in the country. Harris added that doing so would help create jobs.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is not set to finalize its requirements for reaching the goal until 2024, which some environmentalists worry could be too little, too late.

Erik Olson, senior strategic director of health at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the administration needs to be more specific on its plan to remove the pipes.

"The top priority must be to require removal of all lead pipes within the decade and to set a strict at-the-tap standard, which is the only way to prevent another generation of kids from drinking water through what is essentially a lead straw," Olson said. "Good intentions won't be enough to get the job done."

Kamala Harris, AFL-CIO
The Biden administration announced $2.9 billion in infrastructure bill funds to replace lead pipes across the country. Above, Vice President Kamala Harris speaks to the AFL-CIO about union jobs and building infrastructure on Thursday, December 16, in Washington, D.C. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo

In recent years, the risks facing cities with lead service lines have come into focus, most notably in connection to the Flint, Michigan, water crisis.

While the EPA considers how to strengthen the nation's lead-in-water rules, it will allow the previous Trump administration's overhaul of lead regulations to move forward, officials said Thursday. When the Biden EPA's requirements are finalized by 2024, they are expected to call for the replacement of remaining lead drinking water pipes "as quickly as is feasible."

"The science on lead is settled—there is no safe level of exposure and it is time to remove this risk to support thriving people and vibrant communities," EPA administrator Michael Regan said in a statement.

Environment America senior attorney John Rumpler called the administration's plans "long-overdue and an indispensable step toward securing safe water." He said the EPA should set a 10-year deadline to replace lead service lines, as New Jersey did in July.

A Trump administration rule said public water systems should replace 3% of their lead service lines annually if lead levels exceed 15 parts per billion, a rate lower than the previous 7% requirement. Trump administration officials said that the rule eliminated loopholes allowing water systems to avoid removing pipes and would therefore make the replacement process faster.

But environmental groups were critical, saying it allowed the removal to happen too slowly.

The Trump administration also set requirements to make sure that water systems prevent lead in pipes from corroding into drinking water. It also revamped lead testing to make sure water samples come from water sitting in lead pipes instead of near a faucet—a move experts say could push lead level results higher for many utilities nationwide.

The Biden EPA is considering ways to strengthen key parts of the regulation, including the 15 parts-per-billion threshold.

Congress approved $15 billion for lead service line replacement in the infrastructure bill—about one-third less than what the White House and water experts say it will cost to replace them nationally.

Administration officials spoke about additional efforts to limit lead exposure, including more childhood surveillance testing for lead exposure by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to remove lead paint in public housing. Also, the Treasury Department is announcing that surplus COVID-19 relief funds can be used for lead service line replacement projects.

"The challenge that we face is, without any question, great. Lead is built into our cities. It is laid under our roads, and it is installed in our homes," Harris said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

California, water pipes
The Biden administration and the EPA plan to remove all lead service lines from the country in the next 10 years. Above, workers with East Bay Municipal Utility District stack water pipes before installing them on April 22 in Walnut Creek, California. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images