Wrong-headed Economics Stops Us Replacing Lead Pipes

Flint, Michigan, resident Jerry Adkisson and his children Jayden (left), Austin and Amiya carry bottled water they picked up from a fire station on February 7. By undermining public trust in government, the author writes, conservatives shrink federal spending on such things as replacing poisonous lead pipes. The resulting austerity is deeply corrosive to democracy. Rebecca Cook/reuters

In the second half of the 19th century, water engineers experimented with drinking-water pipes made from a number of different materials. The challenge was to find something with three essential characteristics: durability, malleability and resistance to corrosion.

After years of study, engineers found something that outperformed iron, steel and cement-lined iron pipes. The material in question? Lead.

Unfortunately, under certain conditions, lead pipes and copper pipes with lead solder can prove toxic. Children are especially at risk. Exposure to high lead levels can reduce cognitive development and damage vital organs.

The devastating public health crisis in Flint, Michigan, has once again brought the issue of lead contamination—and political malfeasance—into the national consciousness.

Yet the tragedy unfolding in Flint is compounded by a more insidious problem: the self-imposed straightjacket of fiscal austerity—capping expenditures on federal programs—that continues to grip Washington.

This austerity is about conservative ideology and not economics. For decades, conservative politicians have railed against the federal government and claimed that our national debt prohibits us from making needed investments. As a result, Washington can only muster half-measures and hollow gestures when faced with a crisis.

History demonstrates that the federal government is capable of responding to environmental and public health emergencies with decisive action. In June 1969, a portion of the Cuyahoga River caught fire in southeast Cleveland when sparks from a passing freight train ignited a large pool of oily discharge. Images of flames reaching up as high as five stories from the river served as the breaking point in the growing national debate over the need to control industrial pollution.

Congress responded by creating the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and passing the Clean Water Act in 1972. Together, these two legislative acts have profoundly improved public and environmental health.

Lead contamination in water represents another national challenge in need of federal action. The American Water Works Association estimates that approximately 6.1 million lead service lines provide water to between 15 million and 22 million people every day. Replacing all lead service lines would cost around $30 billion, or roughly $5,000 per household.

Typically, homeowners and water utilities share the cost of replacement, with homeowners covering approximately 60 percent on average. This translates to about $3,000 per household, or $18 billion to homeowners nationally. For many low-income families, the cost of replacing a lead service line is simply unaffordable, especially as a one-time expense.

Congress should respond with two forms of assistance: grant funds for community water systems and flexible, low-interest loans to homeowners that they could repay over many years through their monthly water bills.

Regrettably, Congress has only managed to debate—though not pass—modest support for Flint and other communities affected by lead contamination. This paralysis is not due to a lack of resources.

For instance, closing the carried interest tax loophole, which allows hedge fund and other financial managers to pay a lower tax rate than other workers, would raise enough to cover a national lead service line replacement program for water authorities and homeowners.

Or the federal government could simply borrow the money. Currently, the U.S. Treasury Department is able to borrow money at negative real interest rates over a seven-year period and at less than 1 percent over a 30-year period.

For conservative politicians, however, these details are irrelevant. Shrinking federal expenditures by undermining public trust in government is the end goal. The resulting fiscal austerity and harm to local communities is both self-fulfilling and deeply corrosive to democracy.

Abraham Lincoln once stated that the legitimate object of government is to do for people "whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do, for themselves—in their separate, and individual capacities."

Clean drinking water is a basic human right. The time has come for Washington to shake off the self-imposed, unnecessary and deleterious policy of fiscal austerity and to make the kinds of beneficial investments that people cannot make for themselves in their separate and individual capacities.

Kevin DeGood is the director of infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress.