Op-Ed: Robust state funding’s needed to replace lead pipes

The following op-ed was published in The Buffalo News on February 14, 2021 and was written by Rob Hayes, Director of Clean Water at EANY. 

If you were to take all the lead water pipes in Buffalo and lay them end to end starting at Niagara Falls, they would reach to Rochester. That’s more than 100 miles of lead pipes responsible for bringing drinking water into the homes of tens of thousands of families.

Why should we be concerned? First, there is no safe level of lead in drinking water. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lead exposure can cause damage to the brain and nervous system as well as learning and behavior problems.

You may also remember the story of Flint, Mich. In Flint, lead service lines, the water pipes that connect water mains to buildings’ internal plumbing, leached neurotoxins into the community’s drinking water and poisoned thousands of people.

The same could happen in Buffalo, or anywhere these pipes are in use. In fact, lead is already present in Buffalo’s drinking water; it’s impossible to fully eliminate this contamination while lead pipes remain in use.

The water crisis in Flint should have been a wake-up call. And yet, the Trump administration weakened lead regulations. Trump’s EPA not only failed to require water utilities to replace every lead service line, they actually reduced the number of pipes that must be replaced if elevated levels of lead are detected.

We must do better in New York, where an estimated 360,000 lead service lines remain buried underground, disproportionately in low-income communities and communities of color. Urgent action is needed from state lawmakers before people get sick, not after.

Boosting funding to get the lead out should be a top priority. In 2017, New York created the Lead Service Line Replacement Program, which has provided $30 million in grants to local governments to dig up lead service lines at no charge to the homeowner.

This program has directly benefited the City of Buffalo, which received $560,000 to create its own “Replace Old Lead Lines” initiative and has removed 300 lead pipes. While this is commendable, the scale of the problem remains enormous: approximately 60% of Buffalo’s residential buildings, close to 41,000, have lead service lines. It could take well over $200 million to replace every one.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has included $500 million to upgrade water infrastructure in his state budget proposal. Now state leaders must ensure that the Lead Service Line Replacement Program receives an appropriate amount of the proposed funding.

A $100 million investment in the Lead Service Line Replace Program is essential to continue progress to provide lead-free water to New York’s children and adults.