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Local towns unconcerned about EPA cuts to lead pipe replacement funds

Avery Bleichfeld

Local municipalities in the metro Boston area who spoke with the Banner are largely unconcerned about slated cuts in federal funding to replace lead service pipes in Massachusetts.

The funding, which is allocated to states by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), draws from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF), which was established in 1996. In the latest round of annual funding, the allotment for lead service line replacement in Massachusetts dropped from almost $65.8 million to $33.7 million.

To evaluate funding needs in each state, every four years water systems fill out a survey with questions to assess drinking water infrastructure needs. The 2021 survey was the first to include data about lead service line infrastructure.

The EPA touted the new data as the best available projections of lead service line counts, though the agency also acknowledges that most water systems are in the process of developing a complete inventory of their service lines and how many are made of lead.

Lead pipes pose a health risk, especially for children who are more prone to lead poisoning, which can cause issues with learning development and behavior challenges. It can also have effects on blood pressure, hearing loss and infertility.

The impact of lead pipes in Massachusetts tends to be outsized in communities of color. According to a report released in 2021 by the Department of Public Health, Black children are almost twice as likely to have elevated lead levels compared to their white counterparts. Children who identify as mixed-race are three times more likely.

The Massachusetts Congressional delegation raised concerns about the allocation process in a letter sent to EPA Administrator Michael Regan on Sept. 11. In it, they urged the EPA to reevaluate the way it analyzed need across the country.

The Banner spoke with officials in Boston and three other nearby cities to understand what needs in those communities look like. All the municipalities the Banner spoke with expressed little concern for how the change in federal funding would impact their water system, though they acknowledged that other municipalities elsewhere in the commonwealth might need the money.

In the city of Boston, property owners can have the Boston Water and Sewer Commission (BWSC) replace lead service lines for free through a program started in 2004. The program, which originally offered grants of $4,000 to property owners, was made free in August 2023.

That program is funded through the DWSRF, the same source of federal funding that has been cut in the EPA’s new calculations, but in an email statement to the Banner, Dolores Randolph, director of communications for the BWSC, said the program has already received a $10 million loan commitment for the city’s lead service line replacement program that will not be affected by the cuts.

Other municipalities also have a standing lead service line replacement program with stable funding. In Cambridge, the city program is funded through the city’s budget and has not received any federal funding, according to a city spokesperson.

In Revere, work to remove all lead service lines is underway. A spokesperson for the city said they don’t expect to be impacted by the federal funding changes, as they feel they’re currently budgeted to remove the rest of the lines.

The city of Chelsea has been using loans from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority to fully replace lead service lines when they find them, so the federal funding cuts won’t immediately affect them either, Cate Fox-Lent, the city’s commissioner of public works, said in an email.

Chelsea did, however, recently apply to the State Revolving Loan Fund for the first time for funding to build out its inventory of existing service lines, as part of an effort to be in compliance with a federal deadline in October around mapping where the service lines exist. It is unclear if the cuts in the Massachusetts allocation of the State Revolving Loan Fund will affect that application.

“Luckily, we’ve been working on this for several years and have a good start, but I’m certain there are many communities for which state funding will be critical,” Fox-Lent said in an email.

The October deadline, part of changes the EPA made in 2021 to the rules around lead and copper pipes, is focused around the development of more accurate service line inventories. In light of that deadline, the EPA announced that water systems that were surveyed to determine lead service line replacement funding will have the opportunity to update their service line questionnaire responses.

According to the EPA, the released 2023 allotments will remain as they are. Updated responses to the survey will be used to develop allotment values for the 2024 funding.

Boston Water and Sewer Commission, EPA, Lead pipe replacement