Lead enters drinking water when plumbing materials that contain lead corrode. (Shevry Lassiter/The Washington Informer)
Lead enters drinking water when plumbing materials that contain lead corrode. (Shevry Lassiter/The Washington Informer)

Two decades after experiencing one of the nation’s most severe lead water crises, D.C. still has tens of thousands of lead service lines posing health risks to District residents, especially children. 

“If you have a lead pipe, it’s the equivalent of playing Russian Roulette. You never know when pieces of lead will flake off,” said Neil Boyer, chair of NAACP D.C.’s Environmental and Climate Justice committee, speaking at a September 19 summit on environmental health hazards. 

“There is no such thing as a safe lead pipe,” Boyer said. 

Buoyed by at least $135 million in federal funding, DC Water aims to eliminate all lead service lines in the District by 2030. But a new report commissioned by D.C. Council found that the city will need to make major changes in order to meet that goal and prioritize District residents most vulnerable to lead exposure. 

One necessary step remains for D.C. lawmakers to make lead service line removal mandatory and free for all residents, the report said. Currently, when DC Water wants to replace a lead service line, it needs approval from the property owner. 

Even in agency-initiated projects that remain free to residents, DC Water has about a 25% non-participation rate, according to Lead Replacement Program Manager John Deignan. That means the 100% lead-free goal would require returning to the same streets at least once, doubling repaving costs and making it essentially impossible to complete the task in 10 years. 

At a September 27 roundtable hosted by the Council’s Committee on Transportation and Environment, clean water advocates, DC Water leaders and legislators agreed that that was unacceptable.

“We need a mandate and we need funding,” said committee chair, Councilmember Mary Cheh. 

A representative in her office confirmed that she plans to introduce legislation on the issue before she leaves office in December.

Why Fully-Funded Lead Removal Mandate Matters 

A mandate could help the city avoid furthering environmental injustices that already make low-income residents and people of color more vulnerable to lead exposure, said Valerie Baron, a public representative on the Lead Service Line Planning Task Force established by the Council last year. 

“When we don’t get every house on a block, the folks that are left behind are disproportionately families experiencing poverty and people of color,” Baron said. “We are literally paving over the problem and leaving the same populations that have been bearing the brunt of the lead problem here for decades to continue to face it.”

Though many of the city’s known lead pipes remain concentrated in neighborhoods with older houses, such as Columbia Heights and Capitol Hill, a lot of homes in Wards 7 and 8 have pipes marked “unknown” on DC Water’s inventory, Baron noted in an interview. Further, D.C. has historically relied on residents to pay for all or part of their service line replacements, which made wealthier households more likely to eliminate their lead pipes.

In 2019, the city enabled DC Water to fully cover agency-initiated replacements. Since October of that year, DC Water has replaced about 3,000 lead service lines with more than 50% of those projects either free or discounted for homeowners, Deignan said. Still, under the utility’s current plan, around 39% of all lead pipe removals would need to be initiated – and at least partially paid for – by residents.

Underlying Inequalities Increase Vulnerability 

DC Water has ramped up replacement rates in the last two years and its plan prioritizes historically-disadvantaged neighborhoods. But underlying disparities in access to good nutrition, educational support and quality health care can all make lead exposure more dangerous for Black and low-income children than for their wealthier, white peers.

Certified water filters reduce lead but neither DC Water nor the Department of Energy and Environment have long-term programs to get free filters to families, another factor that stacks the deck in favor of wealthier residents. 

The independent report recommends providing filters to anyone with known or suspected lead service lines. At the roundtable, DC Water CEO David Gadis said such a program would be too expensive, requiring rate hikes and taking away from the permanent solution of lead pipe removal. 

Advocates like Boyer don’t think that reasoning’s good enough.

“What are you going to say to all the families that have to wait until 2030 to get their lead service lines fully replaced, who you refused to even consider supplying with free water filters?” he asked at the roundtable. “What are you going to say to the next family whose child is diagnosed with elevated blood lead levels? Are you going to say sorry and give them your thoughts and prayers?”

Kayla Benjamin covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine...

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