A bill introduced by Rhode Island State Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D-4) proposes the replacement of all lead service lines in Rhode Island at no cost to homeowners within 10 years. If the bill passes, the Federal Infrastructure Bank will provide initial funding of $141 million, though Ruggerio anticipates that it will require “substantially more than that to get rid of all the lead lines in the state.”
There are at least 35,000 lead water pipes remaining in the Ocean State, according to a report from WPRI.
“This piece of legislation was introduced last year by Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey,” Ruggerio said. The bill made it through the Senate last year, but stalled in the House. Ruggerio suspects that the bill failed to pass because “it was late in the session.”
This time, “it has a great chance to pass,” he added. “I'm sure that we can come to some agreement on how to get to the finish line.”
According to Devra Levy ’19, a community organizer at the Childhood Lead Action Project, “lead is a significant environmental health hazard, especially for children,” and is commonly found in house paint, soil and lead pipes.
“Lead pipes were used very commonly up until the mid- to late-20th century,” Levy explained, noting that homes built before that time — many of which are rental properties — are “very likely” to have lead hazards.
Levy added that exposure to high lead concentrations can cause a variety of health issues, including high blood pressure and brain and reproductive health issues among adults.
For children, even lower-level exposure “can cause really significant behavioral and emotional health issues later in life,” Levy said, including brain and nervous system damage, behavior problems and slowed development. Levy also noted that the effects of lead poisoning can be difficult to track at lower exposures since there are often no physical symptoms.
The effects of lead poisoning are distributed unevenly: Children in Rhode Island’s poorest neighborhoods were four times more likely than average to be poisoned by lead, according to a recent study from the Rhode Island Department of Health.
“We probably waited three generations too long in order to do this,” Ruggerio said.
Providence Water, which serves the city of Providence as well as surrounding areas, has been working to reduce lead in drinking water for 11 years now, The Herald previously reported. The department “has been proactive in developing our lead service line replacement program,” wrote Carissa Richard, director of governmental relations at Providence Water, in an email to The Herald.
She added that Providence Water has “obtained approximately $10 million in federal grant funding which is being used for the replacement of private lead service lines in disadvantaged areas of our distribution system.”
But, according to Levy, the $141 million allocated for lead pipe replacement in Rhode Island by the 2021 federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has not been distributed yet.
Providence Water expects to receive funds from the grant in the coming years, according to a fact sheet provided to The Herald by Christopher D. Hunter, spokesperson for Providence Water. These funds will be used to replace 31,000 private lead pipelines free of cost to the property owner, the fact sheet continued.
Providence Water also stopped its practice of partial lead service line replacements as of summer 2022, according to Levy. Through the program, Providence Water provided free replacement of lead pipes up to homes’ property lines; homeowners were responsible for the cost of replacements on their own property, with the option to participate in an interest-free loan program.
Dwayne Keys, president of the South Providence Neighborhood Association, described partial replacements as “significantly dangerous” for causing corrosion and lead particles from cut pipes to enter water flows.
According to the fact sheet, Providence Water has “made changes to the water treatment process to make the water less corrosive in an effort to reduce lead levels in some homes.”
Last January, CLAP filed a complaint with the Environmental Protection Agency accusing the program of violating the 1964 Civil Rights Act, The Herald previously reported. The group argued that the costs of lead pipe replacement are difficult for people in low-income communities to afford.
“This was a civil rights issue because, in Providence, people of color are disproportionately more likely to be low-income and renters,” Levy said.
The EPA is currently in the process of drafting an informal resolution agreement with Providence Water, according to Levy.
Providence Water declined to comment specifically on the issue.
As part of their Water Main Replacement program, Providence Water replaced lead pipes in the Washington Park and Charles Street neighborhoods for free using EPA grant funding, according to the fact sheet.
“We’re glad to see any legislation” on issues CLAP advocated for, including Ruggerio’s proposed bill, Levy said. She added that she was also encouraged by “significant input from the community as well as a plan to actually reach out to community members about the program.”
Keys said that he “applauds the Senate President's efforts to move this forward” and is “cautiously optimistic about the proposed legislation.”
The state Senate will go on break in a week, according to Ruggerio, after which “we're going to hit the ground running and we're going to do a lot of legislation,” which he anticipates will include this proposed bill.
Injy El-Dib is a metro staff writer at The Brown Daily Herald. She has previously covered activism and public health in the Providence area. In her free time, Injy enjoys playing volleyball and crocheting stuffed animals.