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Lead in Water Harms Red States, Too

by Maureen Cunningham

Lead in drinking water is an urgent national problem, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to certain members of Congress.

This neurotoxin known to cause devastating cognitive and behavioral problems is especially harmful for infants and children. Today, there are an estimated 10 million lead pipes carrying — and potentially contaminating — U.S. drinking water. Replacing those pipes is essential to safeguarding public health and ensuring safe drinking water for all.

But last fall, 200 House Republicans voted against spending $15 billion to replace lead service lines, as part of the bipartisan infrastructure law. Thirty Republican Senators also voted against the law.

While debating funding for lead pipe replacement in the Build Back Better Act, which would have contributed billions more, several Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee balked at this investment, casting it as only a problem in big cities disproportionately located in blue states. Indeed, Oklahoma GOP Congressman Markwayne Mullin called lead funding “a bailout for cities.”

Despite such rhetoric, red states also have a significant lead problem. Of the 15 states with the highest number of lead service lines, seven voted for President Donald Trump in 2020. For example, solid red Missouri, ironically nicknamed the “lead state” as a former global producer of lead, has an estimated 330,000 lead service lines, the sixth highest in the nation. (Of Missouri’s seven House members, all but one voted against the infrastructure bill.)

Or consider Indiana, with 290,000 lead service lines. Indiana’s seven House GOP members and both its senators voted against the bipartisan infrastructure law. In the House committee hearing described above, Indiana Representative Larry Bucshon said lead service lines were “the result of decades and decades of mismanagement, in my view, at the local level,” suggesting they are not the federal government’s responsibility.

While lead-contaminated water may be associated with cities such as Flint and Newark, lead water pipes are just as big of a problem in less urban states. Iowa and Kansas, with 160,000 lead lines each, are among the top six states for lead pipes per capita; Texas has a whopping 270,000 lead lines.

If members of Congress could put partisan politics aside, they would have a real chance to solve this problem through new technologies, innovative strategies and contracting and procurement reforms. Leaders from both sides of the political aisle can also make the case for funding to match the scale of states’ lead pipe problem.

Today, we have an opportunity to address lead in drinking water. If we saw this as a national problem, not a red- or a blue-state one, we just might be able to come together and solve it.

Maureen Cunningham serves as the chief strategy officer and director of water at the Environmental Policy Innovation Center, as well as being an elected council member in the town of Bethlehem, NY.

This article was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation. It was originally published April 22, 2022 on The Progressive.

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A changing climate means a changing society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project (URP) is committed to a greener, fairer future. www.islandpress.org/URP

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