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Better Clean Water Strategies Sought Under Biden’s American Jobs Plan

May 26, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

WASHINGTON — Everyone on a congressional panel Tuesday agreed that safe drinking water is an important health priority but several lawmakers disagreed that the Biden administration’s plan for pursuing it is practical.

“I have a lot of doubts that it will,” said Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, referring to whether Biden’s American Jobs Plan would succeed in replacing all the nation’s lead pipes.

The $2.3 trillion economic stimulus plan would set aside $45 billion to replace lead pipes with safer plumbing.

Lead is a toxic metal often linked to neurological problems and cancer. Modern water pipes are most commonly made of copper or plasticized polyvinyl chloride.

Lead pipes in the United States were outlawed by the Safe Water Drinking Act of 1974. Nevertheless, many of them remain in older houses and buildings.

Biden wants to replace all of them. He also proposes spending another $105 billion over 10 years to upgrade other drinking water systems.

“It’s extremely difficult to know where these lead pipes are,” Crenshaw said during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on environment and climate change. “How do we prioritize where we look?”

He cautioned that most of the money would go to engineering companies for surveys of neighborhoods but very little of it for hands-on replacement of the older pipes.

Between six million and 10 million homes and about 400,000 schools and child care facilities would need lead pipe replacement, according to a recent estimate from the Center for Urban Health at Indiana University.

Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., who chairs the subcommittee on environment and climate change, cited a 2015 Environmental Protection Agency survey that found the United States needs to spend $472 billion on capital improvements over the next 20 years to properly maintain all its water systems.

“We lose six billion gallons of treated water through leaks every day,” Tonko said.

Other times, health advisories warn residents about contamination in drinking water from oil or other toxins, he said.

“This is unacceptable,” he said while touting the American Jobs Plan as a partial remedy to the problem.

His subcommittee also is considering 10 bills that seek to improve water systems.

The one with the strongest support is H.R. 3293, the Low Income Water Customer Assistance Program Act of 2021. It would create a permanent federally funded water customer assistance program for low-income households and subsidize local water quality efforts.

Numerous advocates for environmental programs and low-income persons issued statements supporting the bill. They included the U.S. Water Alliance, a nonprofit organization that educates the public on the importance of safe water.

The only witness at the congressional hearing was Jennifer McLain, director of the EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, who promoted the Biden administration’s plans.

A first step toward winning public support is a series of roundtable discussions the EPA plans with water quality officials and environmental groups in communities nationwide, McLain said.

She said the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the need to make clean water affordable to everyone.

“It put unprecedented stresses on our nation’s water systems and on the tens of millions of Americans struggling to afford their water bills,” McLain said.

She also discussed benefits of ongoing EPA water programs, such as the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which has provided $189 billion in financial assistance to nearly 43,000 water quality infrastructure projects and 16,500 drinking water projects.

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