Why Washington left millions in lead pipe replacement dollars untapped

Photo by Getty Images courtesy Washington State Standard

Washington’s Department of Health said this week that the state secured only a small fraction of more than $60 million in federal funding to get lead pipes out of public water systems.

The department cited a lack of interest by local water agencies as the reason so much of it was left untouched.

Four future rounds of funding to replace the potentially dangerous pipes will be available and the department said the state will go after those dollars. But doing so will still depend on local agencies coming forward to apply. In the meantime, the federal government has cut the amount the state will be eligible to seek through the program each year to less than half of where it stood initially.

Lead pipes can pollute drinking water. And exposure to lead, which is a neurotoxin, can cause serious health problems for children, including with brain development, growth, and hearing. It can harm adults as well and is known to increase the risk of miscarriage for pregnant women. The drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and contamination in other communities, underscored the hazards.

The 2021 federal infrastructure law included $15 billion for replacing lead pipes nationwide. Forty-nine percent is available as grants or principal forgiveness loans, and the other 51% as low-interest loans. No state matching funds are required to obtain the money.

Washington’s Department of Health announced in December 2021 that the state was in line to “receive over $63 million to replace lead service lines” and said the “funding will greatly aid in expediting the removal of lead from drinking water systems already underway.”

“Lead in drinking water pipes and faucets threatens the health and well-being of children and families across Washington,” Lauren Jenks, assistant secretary of environmental public health said at the time.

But, earlier this week, the Associated Press reported that Washington was among a handful of states that have so far rejected most or all of the new money available to get rid of the pipes. The state only ended up accepting $85,000 of the roughly $63 million that was made available in the program’s first year.

“Due to [the] limited number of water systems applying for lead service line inventory and replacement loans, Washington declined most of the first-year allocation,” Kara Kostanich, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in an email.

Meanwhile, since 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency worked to update a needs assessment that factors into the formula determining how much each state has access to for replacing lead service lines.

In April, based on that assessment, the federal agency cut Washington’s allocation to $28.6 million per year. That amount — not $63 million — is what will be available annually to the state in the next four years of funding. EPA said the revised formula would allow states with more lead pipes “to receive financial assistance commensurate with their need as soon as possible.”

The needs assessment estimated that there are nearly 9.2 million lead service lines nationwide, with about 22,000, or less than 1% of them, in Washington. Other states are believed to have far more. For instance, the estimates show Florida has 1.1 million, Illinois about 1 million, and Ohio around 745,000.

Kostanich said that the Department of Health would open the next round of funding from the federal lead pipe replacement program from Oct. 1 through Nov. 30. “The number of applications and water systems eligible will determine the amount of Lead Service Line Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) allocation we can accept,” she added.

— By Bill Lucia, Washington State Standard

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

    1. I forwarded this to the city and received this reply:The majority of lead water service lines in the U.S. were installed in the early 1900s through the end of the 1940s. Construction of housing in Mountlake Terrace began in the mid-1950s, and the average age of our infrastructure dates to the late 1960s. We don’t believe that we have lead pipe installations for water service lines in our city. However, there are a small portion of the service lines that we don’t have records for and we will need to investigate them per Department of Health guidelines.

      To comply with the Department of Health’s Service Line Inventory Policy we will test 15% of residential service lines for which we don’t have records. We anticipate only needing to confirm the composition of approximately 300 service lines. This work will begin this fall and take about a year.

      – Public Works Director Jesse Hoffman

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