Replacing the Nation’s Lead Lines Begins With Locating Them

April 7, 2021
Estimates vary, but the number of lead service lines in the United States are believed to be in the millions. Above, lead service lines dug up outside a Denver home. Photo: Denver Water. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Replacing the Nation’s Lead Lines Begins With Locating Them

By Joseph A. Davis

Lead pipes are about to become a huge environmental story ... again. That’s mostly because President Biden’s new “infrastructure” plan aims to replace every lead water service connection in the United States. That gives reporters a big reason to help find them.

Many people mistakenly think problems with lead in the water supply all started in Flint, Michigan. It didn’t. The Flint story of 2014 was a replay, for instance, of a similar one in Washington, D.C. back in 2004. 

Over many years, there has been some good environmental journalism about the problem (SEJ’s EJToday has a list of headlines going back a few years). 

Much of that journalism has exposed problems in particular cities. Madison, Wisconsin, fixed its lead pipes more than a decade ago. After Flint, the state of Michigan started a replacement program. Efforts have begun in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and other cities. 

The most recent journalistic coup was from Michael Hawthorne at the Chicago Tribune on March 19. He examined data he got from the state environmental agency and found lead in some 8 of ten households sampled. 


Why it matters

Lead matters because it is a neurotoxin that harms people’s health — especially kids

It matters because the pipes are spread widely across the landscape — but more often where people are poor. 

It matters because most governments have not yet done enough to address the problem. 

It matters because a number of government agencies have lied about the problem and covered it up

It’s no wonder the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Trump-era update of its Lead and Copper Rule for drinking water has met with serious criticism. One reason was that it slowed the pace of lead pipe replacement. The Biden EPA is now reconsidering that rule. New funding, if it comes, will dramatically quicken the pace.


The backstory

Local, state, and regional stories are even more in order now that Biden is trying to fund replacement of all lead service lines — the pipes that connect water mains under the street to the plumbing inside a house or building. 


There may be as many as 6.1 million of

those lead service lines. An earlier EPA 

estimate had gone as high as 10 million.


There may be as many as 6.1 million of those lead service lines, according to one estimate. An earlier EPA estimate had gone as high as 10 million. Nobody knows the exact number for sure, so the real total could be higher. 

The cost of replacing a single connection could be on the order of $5,000. You can do the math — it's tens of billions of dollars (although part of this may be the responsibility of the homeowner).

Service lines are important, but they are not the only thing you need to worry about when it comes to lead in water. 

Lots of copper pipe is connected with old lead-based solder. Fixtures like the public water coolers found in schools and institutions may have old tanks containing lead solder. On old pipes, lead is sometimes covered with mineral scale, reducing the amount that goes into water. Lead is dissolved from pipes and joints when water is corrosive — a property caused by different chemicals in the water. 


Story ideas and resources

Finding homes at risk is where much of the reporting comes in. Here are some suggestions to get you started in looking at the area of interest to you and your audience.

  • Check in with your local water utility or utilities, and ask them what they know about what neighborhoods or buildings in your area have lead service lines. Some (not all) have records or surveys. 
  • Do local utilities have a lead line replacement program? Have they tested for lead at the tap? Do they have a good corrosion control program? Ask what their plan is for finding all the lead service lines that need replacing.
  • Talk to local plumbers. Look for the experienced ones and ask them where they think lead service lines are to be found in your community.
  • Find out when the houses and buildings in various neighborhoods were originally built. The older the building, the likelier a lead service line will be. Often lower-income people live in neighborhoods with older housing.
  • Contact the American Water Works Association, a trade group, and ask for information. It has done surveys to estimate how many lead service lines may need to be replaced and has other resources on lead in water.
  • Lead pipes are a concern of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (here’s its take on the Lead and Copper Rule).
  • Check in with your regional EPA office. Find out who is currently getting money under the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund to see if any of it is for lead pipe replacement.
  • Contact your state’s drinking water office.
  • Contact the Lead Service Line Replacement Collaborative, an alliance of government agencies and NGOs focused on the problem. It has some good diagnostic tools. If you visit houses, try this one.
  • Visit homes or buildings. Ask to sample the water and inspect the pipes.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 14. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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