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A decade after Flint, US struggles to replace lead pipes – The Morning Sun

Joshua Perkins’s home after Memphis’s utility did a partial pipe replacement. MUST CREDIT: Kevin Wurm for The Washington Post

By Amudalat AjasaThe Washington Post

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Joshua Perkins was surprised one morning last summer to see trucks from Memphis Light, Gas and Water outside his home. When he went to get a glass of water from the sink, nothing came out. Then rumbles of construction on the street began, as did chimes on his phone.

Perkins, the president of his neighborhood association, learned from a group chat what was happening: The utility had sent letters saying it would soon be replacing some lead pipes in the neighborhood, though Perkins said he never received one. Three years ago, Perkins’s water test from the company came back “safe,” he said, but the recent flurry of activity reawakened his concerns about lead contamination.

“No one tells you what they are doing,” Perkins said. “They just do it.”

Even after utility workers pulled pipes from underneath the street in front of Perkins’s residence, leaving a hole in the sidewalk for months, the lead pipes under his home remain.

A decade after a crisis in Flint, Mich., triggered national alarm about the dangers of lead in US drinking water, the White House estimates that more than 9 million lead pipelines still supply homes across the country. In his first year in office, President Biden secured $15 billion through the bipartisan infrastructure law to address the problem. Still, residents across the country are grappling with a patchwork system of replacing those lines – which begins in some places as a partial replacement of lead pipes – sowing confusion and uncertainty about the safety of their everyday tap water.

The cost of drinking contaminated water can last for decades. There is no safe level of exposure to lead, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can cause developmental delays, difficulty learning and behavioral problems. Even low-level exposure can cause permanent cognitive damage, especially in developing children, and it disproportionately harms Black and low-income families. Recent research found that school-age children affected by the crisis in Flint endured significant and lasting academic setbacks.

In 2014, Flint officials switched the city’s water source to save money but did not ensure there were corrosion-control chemicals in the new water supply. Residents in the majority-Black city, where a third of the population lives in poverty, quickly began complaining of contaminated water coming from their taps. But complaints were ignored for more than a year. Nearly 100,000 Flint residents were exposed to lead through their home water sources, according to the CDC.

Following a monumental citizen lawsuit against the city of Flint and Michigan state officials, they agreed to pay for the removal of all the city’s lead service line pipes. Though the city originally agreed to replace all of the pipes by early 2020, some residents are still waiting.

The Environmental Protection Agency has projected that replacing the nearly 10 million lead pipes that supply US homes with drinking water could cost at least $45 billion. The EPA has separately proposed requiring water utilities nationwide to replace all those lead pipes within 10 years.