A multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure plan proposed by the Biden administration includes $45 billion in funding to replace lead pipes and sewer lines, a feature that could protect thousands of Hoosier children from lead contamination.
The $2 trillion “American Jobs Plan” would invest in infrastructure projects like road and bridge improvements, public transit, climate resilience and clean energy job training programs and other projects over eight years.
The plan, if approved by Congress, would include $45 billion in U.S Environmental Protection Agency Drinking Water State Revolving Fund loans and federal Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act grants to eliminate all lead pipes and service lines in the country.
“Today, up to 10 million homes in America and more than 400,000 schools and childcare centers have pipes with lead in them, including in drinking water – a clear and present danger to our children’s health,” President Joe Biden said during an address to a joint session of Congress in April. “The American Jobs Plan creates jobs replacing 100% of the nation’s lead pipes and services lines so every American can drink clean water, and, in the process, it will create thousands and thousands of good paying jobs.”
If the lead pipe removal facet of the plan survives the long trek through both houses of Congress, it could address a problem some experts have called “a ticking time bomb” in Indiana and other industrial and lower-income parts of the country.
“As we saw from Flint and Washington, D.C. before that, and in Paterson, New Jersey now, all of these systems are just waiting to poison kids, if you’re not careful,” said Gabriel Filippelli, director of Indiana University Purdue University’s Center for Urban Health.
Exposure to lead can damage a child’s brain and nervous system, causing slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems, lower IQ, and decreased attention span and underperformance in school.
Filippelli said the plan to remove and replace lead service lines would have a positive effect on Hoosier health throughout the state, which has an unknown amount of dangerous lead service lines.
“A city like Indianapolis, and even smaller towns, or any older town that was built before about 1970 has a likelihood of having lead service lines. But the trick is that no one kept track of them. We really only started mapping service line construction starting in the ’70s, and ’80s. We actually have absolutely no idea where most of these service lines might be,” said Filippelli.
Cities like Fort Wayne, South Bend, Mishawaka, Goshen, East Chicago, Indianapolis and even major regional water providers Indiana American Water continued finding lead service lines even after decades of use.
Lead was also detected in water samples from hundreds of school buildings across the state in the past few years.
“It’s like a detective game where you hope to get it all right, but you're likely going to miss some. So, they do it based on the age of the community, the last time the water mains have been replaced and sometimes some mathematical modeling of likelihood. And, so, it's going to be a lot of guesswork,” Filipelli said.
Filippelli, who also serves as executive director of Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute, said the $45 billion will most likely not be enough to find all the lead pipes and service lines throughout the U.S., but local programs could help to narrow down where lead pipes could be located.
One such program is headed by the IUPUI’s Center for Urban Health, which teamed up with a group of Indianapolis clergy, the Indianapolis Ministerium, to help distribute free lead test kits to residents on the near northwest side of the city.
Data from the soil and water testing kits will be added to a database called Map My Environment, which can be referenced when trying to find lead pipes or service lines.
“We're working with citizen scientists to have them collect water from their own tap and test it for free to help see if we can use this approach as a low-cost technique to map out lead service lines in communities. And if it works, it might be a better way, because you don't want to waste money on tearing up an entire street to get down and figure out, ‘Oh, I guess that service line was replaced 20 years ago.’ You just don't want to do that,” Filippelli said.
The plan has not yet been introduced into either legislative house. When it is introduced, it will most likely change in some form as Republicans and some conservative Democrats have expressed opposition to either certain parts of the proposal or the overall price of the plan.