The Environmental Protection Agency is set to rule on a first-of-its-kind complaint filed last month, which alleges that a Providence lead pipe replacement program violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Written and submitted by a coalition of nonprofits led by the Childhood Lead Action Project and assisted by the Environmental Defense Fund, the complaint could set a precedent for similar actions in cities across the country, according to advocates in the coalition.
The program in question provides free replacement of lead pipes extending up to a home’s property line while requiring homeowners to cover the cost of replacing pipes that lie on the property itself. According to Providence Water, the average replacement cost has been $3,800, though costs vary significantly depending on each house’s circumstances. The coalition of nonprofits argues that the costs of replacement, which a CLAP analysis found to be up to $4,500, may be difficult for people in low-income communities — which are often also communities of color — to afford.
The coalition also includes the South Providence Neighborhood Association, Direct Action for Rights and Equality and the National Center for Healthy Housing.
There are “approximately 26,600 private side lead services” in Providence Water’s distribution, Greg Giasson, deputy general manager at Providence Water, previously told The Herald. The city created the partial replacement program to address this need, and homeowners can also opt into a 10-year loan to alleviate the financial burden of fully replacing their lead service lines, said Devra Levy ’19, community organizer at CLAP.
The complaint alleges that requiring homeowners to pay the remaining cost of a full replacement directly contributes to racial and class inequality, since wealthier, majority-white neighborhoods are more able to afford full replacements, while poorer communities may continue to face lead contamination.
While the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank has provided Providence Water with $3 million for 10-year 0% interest loans to help homeowners pay for their pipe replacements, Levy said that many low-income residents are unable to take out or pay back loans.
“We show in the complaint that, in the Providence Water service area, low-income folks and renters are more likely to be people of color,” Levy added. “This isn’t only class discrimination; it’s also race discrimination.”
“Providence Water takes the issue of lead at our customers’ taps extremely seriously,” Christopher Hunter, a spokesperson for Advocacy Solutions LLC, a consulting firm which represents Providence Water, wrote in an email to The Herald. “That is why for the past 10 years we have been working closely with the Environmental Protection Agency and a panel of nationally recognized drinking water experts to develop and implement strategies to reduce lead in drinking water.”
Hunter wrote that Providence Water has implemented a “five-pronged strategy” to address lead contamination in the water system, which includes the loan program, “aggressive water main rehabilitation within our distribution system” and “an extensive public education and outreach program.”
Hunter also noted that as of December, Providence Water was in compliance with the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule, which requires water systems to have less than 15 parts per billion of lead in at least 90% of customer taps sampled.
“We understand and appreciate community advocacy regarding this public health issue,” Hunter wrote. “Providence Water will continue to follow the recommendations of the EPA and our expert panel regarding lead service line replacements.”
The complaint cites a study led by Karen Baehler, professor of public administration and policy at American University, which examined a similar lead service line replacement program in Washington, D.C. After analyzing the effects of neighborhood income disparity on the likelihood of getting a full or partial pipe replacement, the study found that “household income is a major predictor of full replacement prevalence, with race also showing significance in some analyses.”
The study found that partial replacements — in which some of the lead pipes servicing a property are not replaced — present problems of their own. The disruption caused by partial replacements can heighten lead levels for up to six months after the replacement, and there is evidence to suggest that they do not lead to significant long-term reductions in lead levels, according to the study.
“This is dangerous … because it still leaves half of a lead pipe in the ground,” Levy said. “It’s not actually fully removing the source of potential lead contamination.”
CLAP filed the complaint through a provision in the Civil Rights Act which prohibits the use of federal funds in discriminatory programs.
“Providence Water gets a lot of money from the EPA through grants,” Levy said. “The EPA is funding discriminatory practices — and that’s illegal under the Civil Rights Act.”
If the EPA rules in favor of the nonprofit coalition, the complaint could have implications for replacement programs across the country, according to Levy.
“Both partial replacements and cost-sharing are very, very widespread,” Baehler told The Herald. Of the approximately 11,000 water systems that still rely on lead pipes, about 90% of them employ one of these practices, Baehler said. “It’s going to take a long, long time for all of those systems to adopt what really is considered to be best practice now — a ban on partial replacements and a move away from the cost-sharing approach.”
Lead poisoning can cause problems that range from fatigue and trouble concentrating to insomnia, developmental delays and death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is especially harmful to children, though lead is unsafe at any age.
“Even at low levels, especially when consistent over time, lead poisoning can cause long term and permanent brain damage,” Levy said. “Once someone has been exposed to lead, the damage has been done.”
Issues with lead contamination in municipal water supplies came to light with the Flint water crisis, which made international headlines. The state of Michigan banned partial replacement programs in the wake of the crisis in Flint, Baehler said. She hopes that other states and cities will follow suit.
“What we’re hoping for and expecting is that the EPA will do some investigation of their own and maybe hold some meetings, moderated by the EPA, between Providence Water and the folks who submitted the complaint — including us and the other organizations — to talk about a way forward,” Levy said.
“We were really clear in the complaint that what we wanted was not just for the replacements to stop, but for Providence Water to do full replacements instead of partial replacements,” she added.
The recent Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will provide Rhode Island an influx of money for lead pipe replacement. Levy said she hopes additional infrastructure funding will allow the state to cover the cost of full replacements.
“Providence Water is working closely with the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank to maximize federal infrastructure bill funding to remove lead service lines,” Hunter wrote. “This program will be designed to prioritize lead service line replacements in disadvantaged areas throughout our service area.”