Mar 9th 2016 | Posted in Infrastructure by Peter Partheymuller

Ratings service states as many as 10 million lead pipes are placed nationwide

The nation has been paying close attention to the ongoing crisis in Flint, Mich., for weeks, but it is not the only city that could be susceptible to water contamination. Indeed, a number of Chicago residents have filed lawsuits in recent days against the city, alleging that repairs to the city’s water system allowed dangerous levels of lead to enter the drinking water supply.

epa_logoMore than that, according to an estimate from ratings service Fitch, there are more than 10 million lead water lines throughout the United States. The costs of replacing that many lead pipes could reach as high as $50 billion.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the country’s drinking water and has advocated treating lead water lines through corrosion control primarily. Removal of lead lines is, if not a last resort, several spots down the list of options. After the recent news, however, the EPA has indicated it may revisit these priorities. Fitch’s report suggested that removal will likely be the agency’s recommendation.

If that were to be the case, state and local governments could face enormous public pressure to make lead pipe replacement a priority and enormous and unexpected water infrastructure costs as a result.

“Reprioritizing and accelerating lead pipe replacement would add significant additional capital needs to the sector,” stated Fitch, “and could compete with other critical infrastructure projects, including developing sufficient long-term water supplies and replacing aging infrastructure components other than lead lines. ”

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy last week sent letters to the country’s governors describing the agency’s plans going forward regarding its handling of lead pipes. Another letter was sent to the states’ water regulators from Deputy Assistant Administrator Joel Beauvais in the EPA Office of Water. That letter went into more detail about what is expected of state governments.

In her letter to governors, McCarthy wrote that EPA staff members would “be meeting with every state drinking water program across the country to ensure that states are taking appropriate action to identify and address” any instance of lead levels exceeding acceptable levels.

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