At bus stops and Metro stations around the city, cheery blue and green ads sponsored by DC Water read “Lead Free DC.” The utility has pledged to remove all lead service lines — the pipes connecting buildings to water mains — by 2030. But at the current rate, making that deadline would be impossible.
Last week, two D.C. Council members introduced separate bills aimed at speeding things up.
“It is critical to move this legislation now because DC Water is not on track to meet its own goal,” said Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), who reintroduced her bill “Green New Deal for a Lead-Free DC Amendment Act,” on March 7. She brought the initial version of the bill to the Council last year.
“I think this legislation will streamline lead pipe replacement in D.C. by addressing all our major challenges that are slowing us down: many, many lead pipes being unidentified or misidentified; low voluntary program participation; insufficient financial support; and not enough workers to get the job done,” Lewis George said.
Two days after the Ward 4 Council member reintroduced that legislation, Council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) introduced a similar bill, titled the “Lead-Free DC Omnibus Amendment Act.” Though some details vary, the two bills share many of the same goals. The same eight council members co-sponsored both bills; Lewis George and Pinto each signed each other’s as well as their own.
“I was proud to be a co-introducer on Council member Lewis George’s bill — I think it’s a complementary bill,” Pinto said. “It’s my understanding and hope that Council member Allen, who chairs the Transportation and Environment Committee, will be able to have a hearing on both.”
The legislative efforts seek to leverage new federal funding to support free or low-cost lead service line replacements for every resident. That funding originates in a 2021 act called the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which includes billions of dollars for clean water projects nationally. From that funding, the District expects to receive $28 million a year for the next five years, according to Pinto.
That money still won’t cover the entirety of the project: an independent assessment commissioned by the D.C. Council estimated it would likely cost between $480 and $628 million.
That report, which came out in September, also recommended that the city pass a lead service line replacement mandate requiring property owners to let DC Water replace their lead pipes. Both bills introduced last week include such a mandate.
“It’s OK to just go ahead and say it: we won’t be able to hit the 2030 goal without a mandate,” Council member Charles Allen said to a DC Water’s Chief Legal Officer, Marc Battle, at a performance oversight hearing for the agency on Feb. 28.
“It’d be very difficult,” Battle agreed.
Even in replacement projects initiated by the agency, which are free to residents, DC Water has about a 20% non-participation rate, according to the agency’s vice president for marketing and communications, John Lisle. That means replacing every single service line would require returning to the same streets multiple times, doubling costs and making it impossible to complete the task by 2030.
While DC Water agrees on the need for a mandate, the agency has in the past pushed back on a different provision that shows up in both bills introduced last week: a requirement to provide water filters to residents whose homes still have lead service lines. Advocates working on DC’s lead water challenge have made that a key demand.
“You can’t tell me ‘hey, your house is connected to a lead pipe’ and then say, ‘well, we’re going to replace your pipes in a couple of years. And until then, cross your fingers, good luck,’” said Neil Boyer, chair of NAACP D.C.’s Environmental and Climate Justice committee. “There’s no such thing as a safe lead pipe.”
Lead exposure, even at relatively low levels, can have serious health impacts. High levels of lead during pregnancy increases the risk of miscarriage, and can cause babies to be born prematurely or at a low birth weight. Even very low levels of lead in children can cause behavior and learning problems.
“You know, I often encounter community members who are dismissive of the risk or think that it doesn’t impact them, but the reality is that this is an urgent public health crisis,” Lewis George said. “We cannot really afford to delay replacement any longer. Not only is this about protecting public health, but also planting the roots for a safer, healthier and more thriving DC.”
Lewis George’s bill includes a central focus on workforce development opportunities for District residents to learn how to get jobs replacing lead pipes. That’s the biggest difference between her bill and Pinto’s, which does not feature specific employment-related plans.
“D.C. currently does not have enough lead remediation dispatch specialists to meet its goal,” Lewis George said. “You can throw as much money as you want and lead pipe replacement but it’s not going to work unless you have a workforce that’s big enough to get the job done.”
The provisions around workforce programs may mean that the legislation needs to go through more committees, potentially slowing down the process. Last council term, the bill was referred to the Committee on Executive Administration and Labor as well as the Committee on Transportation and Environment. But Lewis George sees the jobs piece as crucial to the success of the program.
“We believe that creating good green jobs is a critical component of injecting opportunity into our communities and lifting them up,” she said. “And communities will be more willing to embrace the lead pipe replacement program because they see that their sons, daughters, relatives, friends or neighbors are doing the work.”
D.C.’s lead-in-water problem has been going on for decades, though the federal funding has recently put new wind in the sails of policy efforts to fix it. In 2004, the District experienced one of the nation’s most severe lead water crises. According to the independent assessment, about 40,000 lead service lines now remain in the city.
The D.C. Council established a Lead Service Line Planning Task Force in 2021, and the task force released its report in the fall of 2022. Pinto said the report’s recommendations
Environmental, public health and racial justice advocates have spent years organizing in support of more aggressive policies to get those pipes replaced efficiently and equitably. Lewis George said input and hearing testimony from groups like NAACP DC informed many of her bill’s central goals.
“This legislation matters,” said Akosua Ali, president of NAACP DC. “Although we have crime rising in this city, and many, many public safety factors that are out front and prevalent for the residents of the District of Columbia, we can never lose sight of those more silent killers, which are contributors to destabilizing our community and ultimately impact our public safety because it impacts the health of our people.”