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By Michael Hawthorne
Utility groups have long estimated the state leads the nation in the number of lead service lines connecting homes and two-flats to municipal water systems, largely because Chicago’s plumbing code required use of the brain-damaging metal until 1986, decades after most other major U.S. cities had banned it.
Plumbers in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin also installed tens of thousands of lead pipes during the last century to convey drinking water to homes and apartments.
But when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced last month how it plans to share nearly $3 billion this year, Florida got the biggest cut. Another state surprisingly in the top 10: Texas.
Since then environmental lawyers have been quizzing EPA officials and state bureaucrats about a 2022 survey the agency relied upon to conclude Florida surpasses Illinois in the number of lead service lines, and that Texas has more than Michigan and Wisconsin combined.
“Some of the numbers just didn’t make sense,” said Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director at the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund and former assistant commissioner of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.
Florida in particular stands out.
In a 2016 study, the American Water Works Association estimated the state has 200,000 lead service lines. Asked five years later if it had followed up with its own survey, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection told another nonprofit, the Natural Resources Defense Council, it “does not track lead service line(sic).”
With billions of dollars of new federal money on the table, Florida officials reported their state actually has more than 1.1 million toxic pipes — nearly six times more than the utility trade group projected. That put Florida in line for nearly $255 million this year from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, compared to $230 million earmarked for Illinois.
Neltner said local officials in some of Florida’s most populous areas told him they don’t know where the state got the numbers it forwarded to the EPA. Florida officials aren’t talking about their methodology, at least publicly. In some cases, it appears the EPA assumed pipes made of unknown materials are made of lead.
Texas also likely has far fewer lead service lines than the 647,000 estimated in the EPA’s latest survey, in part because Houston incorrectly filled out its forms, Neltner said. The actual number is closer to 300,000, he added, and as a result the state should have received considerably less than the $146 million awarded by the EPA.
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It remains unclear if the Biden administration will order the agency to take another stab at its survey or do more to pin down states about how they came up with their numbers.
“As anticipated, there were a high number of lead service lines identified in Midwestern and East Coast states, where we know aging infrastructure is a challenge,” the EPA said in a statement. “Florida and Texas were allocated their share of the funding based on their submitted data, which highlights the many service lines in their states that are made of both known lead and unknown materials.”
More money is flowing to both states even though Republicans who dominate their congressional delegations all voted against the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, including U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida and John Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas.
There are other quirks in the EPA’s funding formula.
Illinois and other states with the most lead service lines are getting substantially less federal money per line than those with far fewer toxic pipes. For instance, Alaska, with 1,454 lead lines, and South Dakota, with 4,141, will get $19,704 and $6,919 per line respectively during the coming year.
The federal money headed to Illinois amounts to $221 per lead service line, a review of EPA data shows. Michigan and Wisconsin are getting $241 and $238 a line.
If the EPA tweaks its state-by-state analysis or individual states update their figures, it could mean less money is available to Florida and Texas in future years. Other states, including Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin, would be in line for a greater share of federal dollars to replace toxic pipes with safer materials.
“A lot of people here are incredulous about this,” said Cyndi Roper, an NRDC advocate in Michigan, who noted her state attempted to compile a rigorous inventory of lead service lines after high levels of the toxic metal began flowing out of household faucets in Flint during 2015. “Michigan shouldn’t be penalized for having better (documented) numbers than other states.”
“At the same time, if those Florida numbers are somehow accurate, it suggests state officials there haven’t been doing their duty to protect the public,” Roper said. “People in Florida should be asking a lot of questions and taking steps to protect their families.”
Lead is unsafe at any level. Ingesting even tiny concentrations can permanently damage the developing brains of children and contribute to heart disease, kidney failure and other health problems later in life. Researchers estimate more than 400,000 deaths a year in the United States are linked to lead exposure.
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