New Report: No Excuses, NYC: Replace Lead Drinking Water Pipes Now

Articles | July 21, 2023

By Grace Prince

According to a new report by the New York City Coalition to End Lead Poisoning, an estimated 1 in 5 New Yorkers may be drinking from lead service lines (LSLs). The report, No Excuses, NYC: Replace Lead Drinking Water Pipes Now, co-authored by the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Fund, and Earthjustice, identifies the problem of LSLs in the City and recommends urgent action towards their immediate removal. 

The CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics and other prominent health organizations all agree that there is no safe level of lead exposure. Lead poisoning can have adverse health effects at any age level, however, young children and infants are most at risk. 

LSLs are the lead pipes that connect the city water mains under the street to residences and are the biggest source of lead in drinking water. During the early 20th century, the use of LSLs for drinking water was heavily marketed in cities across the U.S. until the public became aware of the effect lead pipes can have on human health. 

“New York City’s drinking water supply is the envy of many other cities. Yet, for all of the money we have invested to protect our watershed, our return on investment is greatly diminished with each lead service line that remains in the ground,” said Joshua Klainberg, Senior Vice President for the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund.

The report has already garnered attention in New York City and beyond. In addition to City Limits, NY1, the Gothamist, and the Guardian all featured the findings.

The Lead and Copper Rule is Failing 

While a federal ban was placed on lead pipes in 1986, and New York City banned them in 1961, the EPA does not require the replacement of legacy lead pipes underground. Health experts and state regulators agree that the removal of LSLs is a necessary part of any health-protective drinking water standard. But the EPA Lead and Copper Rule, which regulates lead in drinking water, is failing to protect the health of communities because it does not require water systems to completely replace lead pipes.

Contaminants in drinking water are typically regulated based on a “maximum contaminant level” (MCL), which is the level of the contaminant before known or anticipated adverse health effects may occur. The MCL for lead in water is zero, however the EPA failed to codify an MCL for lead and instead implemented a “treatment technique” designed to reduce lead levels within a water system. 

This technique is wholly inadequate because the treatment process does not require that the water system reduce lead levels below a certain amount—or in many cases, at all. Furthermore, the frequency at which water systems are required to test for lead varies and fails to account for the fluctuation that can occur from day to day. Lead exposure is often episodic, meaning that on one day, lead levels could be near zero, while the next they could reach extremely high levels, making testing for lead levels insufficient unless done over an extended period of time. 

The problem reaches every borough. Compared to the citywide lead or possible LSL average of 42%, Staten Island (39%) and Queens (40%) are below the average while three—Brooklyn (46%), Manhattan (44%), and the Bronx (42%)–are at or above the average.  

The same report found that nearly half of the neighborhoods with the highest number of lead or possible LSLs are also neighborhoods with the highest percentage of elevated blood lead levels for children under the age of six. While it is impossible to know for certain the source of the lead poisoning, the high degree of LSLs in these neighborhoods deserve a closer look by the DEP and the NYC Department of Health.

“This report should be a wake-up call for the city, as lead is a dangerous neurotoxin with health impacts that last a lifetime,” said Lonnie Portis, New York City Policy and Advocacy Manager at WE ACT for Environmental Justice.“It confirms that lead service lines are located primarily in low-income communities and communities of color, like East Harlem, which is ranked second highest in the city for potential lead water contamination. These are the same neighborhoods where the majority of the homes with lead paint are located, and with some of the worst air pollution in the city.

Newark Shows the Way Forward

Answers on how to replace LSLs quickly, efficiently, equitably, and affordably lie across the Hudson in Newark, New Jersey. 

Following an NRDC lawsuit on behalf of local schoolteachers, Newark replaced all of its lead service lines in under three years. Key to its success was an ordinance that fully funded the mandated replacement of all lead service lines in the city. The full report details more of the provisions that led to Newark’s success, but experts agree both the requirement of the removal of the pipes and the provision of funding for the project were essential components. 

“Cities like Newark, NJ have demonstrated that complete replacement of lead pipelines is possible and proving to be successful in reducing toxic lead exposure,” said Marissa Lieberman-Klein, associate attorney at Earthjustice. “We urge NYC lawmakers to take action and help prevent toxic lead exposure, especially for our children who can be irreparably harmed by lead in their drinking water.”

The report estimates that replacing all of the lead service lines in NYC would cost around $1.35 billion or around $8,800 per LSL. A mandated replacement program can help reduce costs by utilizing economies of scale and with contractors covering large areas of the city at a time, resulting in less cost per LSL removal. Add to that the state and federal sources of funding available, removing LSLs could come at a minimal financial cost to New Yorkers. 

Having identified the problem, the solution, and sources of funding, what we need now is the political will.  The report calls on the NYC City Council to pass a local law, similar to that of Newark, mandating the replacement of all lead service lines within ten years, at little or no cost to New Yorkers.  

“It’s not rocket science,” Joan Matthews, a senior attorney for the NRDC, told City Limits. “We know what the problem is. We know what needs to be done. And now we need to have our local government officials make it happen.” 

Read No Excuses, NYC: Replace Lead Drinking Water Pipes Now 

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