Getting the lead out: Florida to receive over $250M to help remove toxic pipes

After shortchanging the states with the most lead pipes last year, funding was tweaked to get the money where it was needed most.

Image by Jason Gillman from Pixabay

Florida is the state with the most lead plumbing, according to the latest data from the federal government.

Its 1.1 million lead lines make up 12.6% of the 9.2 million service lines in the nation. As a result, Florida is receiving $254.8 million this year in Drinking Water State Revolving Fund dollars from the Environmental Protection Agency, compared to $54.5 million last year.

Why Florida is No. 1 “has everyone puzzled,” said Erik Olson, senior strategist and advocate for the National Resources Defense Council's initiatives on health, food, and agriculture. He noted that Florida saw most of its development after lead pipes were banned in 1986.

The "EPA has set the maximum contaminant level goal for lead in drinking water at zero because lead is a toxic metal that can be harmful to human health even at low exposure levels," its website says. "Lead is persistent, and it can bioaccumulate in the body over time."

Florida's status came to the fore because when the EPA handed out money last year to remove dangerous lead pipes, some states didn't get their fair share. Paying for the removal of lead pipes is part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. 

Take Illinois, which has the second most lead service lines in the nation. It received significantly less funding than California, which has a fraction of the number of lead pipes.

With about 730,000, Illinois received just $52.4 million. By comparison, California received $122.5 million to remove about 65,000 lead pipes, according to the EPA.

But the distribution of funds was evened out last week when the EPA distributed more than $6.5 billion out of the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. 

“States that had really been shortchanged, like Illinois, are getting significant increases,” Olson said.

Lack of information led to lack of money

The issue last year was that states and water districts hadn’t yet completed an assessment of how many lead pipes they had. So when it came time for the EPA to distribute the first $1.3 billion of the $15 billion allocated to remove lead pipes in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the agency wasn’t able to distribute the money based on need. Without the data, the agency used its 2018 assessment of states’ drinking water needs, which did not include lead pipes, to distribute the money.

“There are some states that feel that their allocation of lead service line money is insufficient for the need. Others think that the allocation is too much, given how much the need is there,” Radhika Fox, the EPA’s assistant administrator for water, acknowledged at a hearing last month before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

But by the time the agency distributed this year’s tranche, it said 75% of water systems around the country had completed their assessments of how many pipes they had, changing how the money was spread around. That allowed the agency “for the first time” to distribute the money “commensurate with their need as soon as possible, furthering public health protection nationwide,” the EPA said in a statement.

According to the new data collected from the assessments, Illinois estimates that it actually has just over 1 million lead pipes, for a total of 11.3% of all lead service lines in the nation. So this year, it received $230 million to remove the pipes, more than twice as much funding as last year. 

The money was much more than the $107 million that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency was expecting, an agency spokeswoman said. “The increased funding allotment for Illinois more accurately represents the challenges we face,” said John Kim, the agency’s director, in a statement. “This infusion of funding is vital to Illinois being able to take on this formidable yet crucial task.”

“The additional funds will be tremendously useful as we continue working to help communities meet their infrastructure needs,” said James Lee, a spokesman for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

“They’ve significantly increased the allocations for the states that have heavy burdens of lead service lines because of the [updated] information that they got,” said Donald Jodrey, director of federal relations for the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Flint, Michigan crisis drew attention to problem

California, on the other hand, found that it has about 13,400 lead service pipes—just .15% of all lead pipes in the nation. The state, which received 9% of last year’s funding, will only receive $28.6 million, or the minimum 1% every state receives.

The potential dangers of lead pipes for drinking water drew national attention following the 2014 Flint, Michigan water crisis that exposed thousands of residents to high levels of lead. 

Fox, the EPA’s assistant administrator for water, said at the Senate hearing that the agency could make even more money available to the states under a longstanding policy where the agency takes back money that states haven’t spent after two years and redistributes it.

But it’s not clear how much of an impact that could have because states more flush with money could spend it before the agency claws it back, said Olson.

“Unfortunately, sometimes states can spend a lot of money, not necessarily very wisely. So that money may or may not be available two years from now,” he said.

Despite the progress the agency made in spreading the money around, Jodrey said, it’s not enough in the long run. New estimates from the EPA finds that states will need $625 billion to maintain their drinking water over the next 20 years, about a third more than the $472.6 billion the agency previously estimated.

“That tells me the funding is not keeping up with the needs,” Jodrey said. “Everybody knew that when Congress appropriated the $15 billion in the infrastructure bill that wasn't enough to replace all the service lines.”

Still, said Olson, the funding is a “big down payment.”

Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty, where a version of this story was first published. 

NEXT STORY: Florida state senators back wide-ranging tax breaks