100 miles of lead pipes supply water to Buffalo

Construction worker.

By JERRY ZREMSKI from Buffalo News

Release date: April 22, 2021


One mistake turned the water taps of Flint, Mich., into streams of suffering back in 2014 – and the same thing could happen in Buffalo or just about any other older community in America.

That's because Buffalo and hundreds of other communities rely on water lines made of a toxic metal: lead, which, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, can cause behavioral and learning problems in children as well as heart, kidney and reproductive issues in adults.

Some 100 miles of lead service lines supply water to homes in Buffalo. That being the case, the Brown administration has implemented stricter standards than the federal government to try to ensure that high lead levels don't seep into the city's water supply like they did in Flint.

But as that Michigan city's actions proved, all it takes is an error for lead water lines to poison the water. And that's why environmentalists and health advocates are thrilled with one of the most ambitious proposals in President Biden's sprawling $2 trillion infrastructure bill: a $45 billion promise to replace all the lead service lines in the country.

If included in legislation that faces a fierce debate in Congress, the lead pipe replacement project could be a boon of up to $500 million to the city of Buffalo. The city says it might cost that much to replace the lead lines that supply water to 60% of the city's homes.

Yet the Biden proposal remains fraught with questions – about whether the money the president is proposing for pipe replacement will fall short, and whether it will really put a dent in the lead contamination problems that have bedeviled cities like Buffalo for decades.

Still, there's consensus among experts in lead contamination that the Biden effort is overdue. Marc Edwards, a Buffalo native and Virginia Tech civil engineering professor who helped uncover the Flint water crisis, said keeping those lead pipes would pose a grave health risk.

"I think the only way to move forward, really, is to once and for all get rid of the only government-owned lead source that directly affects a product intended for human consumption, and that's drinking water," Edwards said.

Evading the risk 

Buffalo has so far evaded the risk that was buried beneath the city more than a century ago. Whereas human error has produced drinking water crises in cities such as Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh as well as Flint in recent decades, the Brown administration has taken steps aimed at preventing a similar debacle here.

For one thing, the city wasn't satisfied that the federal standard for supposedly safe drinking water was stringent enough, so in 2016, it set its own lead standard – which only allows a third as much lead as the feds deem acceptable. Oluwole A. McFoy, the chairperson of the Buffalo Water Board, said Buffalo was the first city in the nation to do that.

Three years later, the Brown administration took another step aimed at preventing lead in the drinking water. It initiated its Replace Old Lead Lines program, which aims to find and replace the damaged lead water lines that are most likely to result in contaminated drinking water. 

"This past year, we replaced 400 of them, but we have tens of thousands to go," McFoy said.

The city's efforts win praise from Buffalo and beyond.

"We have a mayor that had the presence of mind to start this effort with very limited resources, and we can accelerate that" with the money the Biden infrastructure bill would provide, said Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat.

Meanwhile, Anna Wolf, senior project manager for urban resilience at a Chicago-based urban affairs nonprofit called the Center for Neighborhood Technology, wrote a blog post in 2019 praising the Buffalo effort. She called it "a model that other cities can use to accelerate the removal of lead service lines as well."

The trouble is, Buffalo can only afford to do so much. The city has spent $3 million in recent years to remove lead water lines. Replacing all the city's lead water pipes would cost somewhere between $350 million and $500 million, McFoy said.

"That would exceed our bonding capacity," he noted.

In other words, Buffalo can't even borrow its way out of its lead pipe problem.

The Biden proposal 

To hear experts in the issue tell it, older cities across the nation are in the same bind as Buffalo.

"Local governments and ratepayers cannot afford to fix this problem," said Brian Smith, associate executive director for Citizens Campaign for the Environment. "That's what we've seen over the course of decades. We need robust funding from the federal government to fix this problem."

Enter the Biden plan.

"The American Jobs Plan will put plumbers and pipe fitters to work replacing 100% of the nation’s lead pipes and service lines so every American, every child, can turn on a faucet or a fountain and drink clean water," Biden said in his March 31 speech unveiling his proposal.

Environmentalists and water engineering experts greeted that proposal with a mix of joy and relief.

The Biden plan would begin to restore the federal share in funding water infrastructure projects, which shrunk from 63% in 1977 to only 9% today. Amid that funding cut, water systems have been neglected and ratepayers have ended up paying for the inevitable repairs.

"Rising rates are already pressing some families out of being able to pay for their water," said Molly Flanagan, chief operating officer and vice president for programs at the Alliance for the Great Lakes. "So we've seen instances across the Great Lakes region where people have their water turned off. And so we think that's totally unacceptable."

Most importantly, the Biden plan aims to avert disasters like the one that befell Flint. There, to save money, the city switched its water supply from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the closer-by Flint River. But officials failed to account for the fact that the Flint River water was more corrosive – which prompted it to erode lead water pipes to the point where the city's water was no longer safe to drink.

That's by no means the only example of human error combining with lead water pipes to produce disaster. In 2001 in Washington, D.C., the city switched the chemicals it used to treat the water – and before long, D.C.'s drinking water contained lead levels that were at least 83 times higher than that which the federal government considers safe. A similar switch in anti-corrosion chemicals produced a lead contamination problem in Pittsburgh's drinking water in 2016.

Edwards, the Virginia Tech engineering professor, long has served as something of a lead contamination detective. He helped ferret out the problems in Flint, D.C. and Pittsburgh, and his years of work have led him to the conclusion that every lead water pipe is an ever-present danger.

"When you least expect it, you have a seemingly innocuous change in the water, and all hell can break loose," Edwards said.

But is it enough? 

Even those who praise the Biden plan to eliminate lead water pipes raise one nagging concern: that it's likely not enough to solve the decadeslong problem of lead contamination and its destructive effects, especially on children.

For one thing, while the Biden plan sets aside $45 billion for the lead pipe effort, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in the eight Great Lakes states alone, the drinking water infrastructure improvements needed over the next 20 years total $110.5 billion.

"The needs far outstrip even what's in this plan," said Laura Rubin, director of the Great Lakes/Healing Our Waters Coalition.

The Biden plan also calls for $66 billion in spending on sewer and storm water system improvements when the EPA projects $77.5 billion in such needs in the Great Lakes states alone.

"So $66 billion spread across the country is a good start but it's not enough," said Flanagan, of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Republicans contend that Biden's infrastructure plan aims to spend too much on the wrong things.

“This plan is not about rebuilding America’s backbone," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said. "It would spend more money just on electric cars than on America’s roads, bridges, ports, airports and waterways combined."

Then there's the fact that lead pipes are just one piece of the nation's lead contamination problem. Katarzyna Kordas, an associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health at the University at Buffalo, noted that it's difficult to determine exactly how much lead pipes may be to blame for any individual case of lead exposure.

That would depend on other factors, such as whether there are lead plumbing fixtures in the home, how much contaminated water a person is drinking and that person's level of exposure to lead paint chips and dust – common problems in older homes in Buffalo and elsewhere that remain despite government efforts to remove lead paint over the years.

"When lead comes from multiple sources, each source may contribute a small portion, but together they really add up," Kordas said.

Even so, lead water lines pose such a risk that it only makes sense for the federal government to begin an effort to get rid of them, said Smith, of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

"This could be the game changer that we're waiting for," he said. "You know, as long as there are lead pipes, there will be more unsafe lead contamination in drinking water. There is no safe level of exposure to lead. It leads to neurological disorders, and inhibits the ability of our children to learn. We can't afford not to fix this problem."

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