Ward 1 D.C. Councilmember Brianne Nadeau
Ward 1 D.C. Councilmember Brianne Nadeau Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Most of the D.C. Council supports a new idea to help get trace amounts of lead out of the water that residents drink.

On Tuesday, Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau introduced legislation that would provide vouchers worth up to $800 to low-income D.C. homeowners who want to replace private lead water pipes with non-lead water pipes.

Although lead in the District’s water supply is now at historically low levels, according to D.C. Water, Nadeau says her proposal would benefit public health, particularly among households that would not otherwise change the lead pipes connecting their homes to main public service lines. She says the government should incentivize people to switch out lead pipes because exposure to lead can harm children’s mental development and pregnant women. (Nadeau, who is running for reelection as Ward 1 Councilmember next year, gave birth to a baby girl in September.)

D.C. Water has been replacing main water lines made of lead pipes since 2003, following the public disclosure of elevated lead levels in the District’s water at the outset of that decade. (A 2013 study even found fetal death rates spiked in D.C. in 2001 when lead levels peaked, and birth rates increased after the city implemented protections for pregnant women.) More recently, dozens of local public schools were determined to have high levels of lead in their water sources last year, leading officials to put filters on school faucets and bolster testing standards for lead.

Under Nadeau’s bill, families who earn less than half of the area median income, which equals roughly $55,000 a year for a family of four, could receive the full $800 subsidy. Families who earn between half and 80 percent of the AMI, or up to about $88,000 a year for a family of four, would be eligible for 60 percent of the max voucher, or $480.

Lead pipes are prevalent in 20th-century homes. According to the councilmember’s office, homeowners can spend several hundred dollars in contracting D.C. Water to replace water pipes. “Because the city often owns most of what people consider their private front yard leading to the water meter, the actual private pipes can be as little as a foot or so of lead pipe that a homeowner would be responsible for replacing,” Nadeau says. “Homeowners need better tools to help understand the risks of lead in the water and the dangers” of only partial lead pipe replacement.

The legislation would also require landlords to disclose to tenants whether a given property contains any known lead water pipes. It would mandate the same of homeowners with respect to prospective home purchasers before sales occur. (Fines or other civil penalties for non-disclosure, however, are not currently spelled out in the draft of the bill.)

Eight other councilmembers co-introduced the legislation with Nadeau. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson referred it to the council’s committee on transportation and the environment, which could set a hearing on it this fall. It’s not yet clear how much the proposed vouchers could cost, since D.C.’s Chief Financial Officer must still assess the bill.