A man fills a glass pitcher of water from a sink
Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

At first, Randy Speck asked for permission. The former advisory neighborhood commissioner for Single Member District 3/4G03 proposed going door to door to encourage his neighbors to participate in a seldomly used D.C. Water program that offers free and significantly discounted replacement of lead pipes. D.C. Water turned him down, Speck said during a recent D.C. Council hearing, but he did it anyway.

“We found that many residents had discarded the D.C. Water’s notice,” Speck said during the Committee on Transportation and the Environment’s Feb. 28 hearing. “In the end, we were able to complete consent forms, and residents reported that D.C. Water actually did an excellent job on actual replacement of service lines but including restoration of their yards.”

D.C. has struggled for decades to address water lead contamination in homes in D.C., and the city’s self-imposed deadline to eliminate all lead pipes by 2030 is approaching. 

“I think it’s OK to just go ahead and say it: ‘We will not be able to get to 2030 goal without a mandate,’” said Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who chairs the committee.

During the hearing, safe drinking water advocates pushed for such a legislative mandate to remove all lead service lines. Some witnesses also suggested adopting a community health approach, similar to Speck’s efforts, to encourage residents to participate in lead pipe replacement programs. D.C. Water offers multiple lead service line replacement programs that provide discounts depending on whether the pipes run under public or private property. If a resident wants lead pipes replaced under their private property, and there are lead pipes near the public property line, D.C. Water will replace everything for free. If there are no adjacent public lead pipes, the District subsidizes 50 to 100 percent of the work.

“It is not surprising that after years of harm and misinformation, many D.C. residents have reacted to a free lead service line replacement program with skepticism, distrust, confusion or disinterest,” co-founder of Campaign for Lead-Free Water Yanna Lambrinidou said during Allen’s hearing. She recalled that as recently as 2004, the city experienced one of the country’s most severe lead-contaminated water crises.

While advocates believe that a legislative mandate to replace lead pipes on private properties could help the city reach its 2030 deadline, D.C. Water might still need permission from residents who are either skeptical or unclear about the city’s efforts to replace lead water pipes.

D.C. Water has reported a low participation rate in its lead pipe replacement programs. Safe drinking water advocates testified at Allen’s hearing that a community health model that sends residents door to door to educate their neighbors about the program could help to increase participation.

“Placing resident liaisons front and center in our cities work to address lead in water should help not only with increased participation in lead service line replacement, but also with the delivery of complete, accurate, and honest information about how lead in water works; what health harm it does; and what steps people can take to prevent exposures whether or not they have a lead service line,” Lambrinidou said.

One week after the hearing, Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George reintroduced a bill aimed at speeding up lead pipe replacement. The bill, co-introduced by seven other councilmembers, is the second half of Lewis George’s “Green New Deal for D.C.” (the first half deals with affordable housing). The legislation requires residents to participate in D.C. Water’s removal program and requires D.C. Water to create an inventory of all water service lines so residents know if they need to act.

“The Green New Deal for a Lead-Free DC makes the urgent changes needed to replace all lead pipes in D.C.,” Lewis George says in an email to City Paper. “The bill requires D.C. Water to identify all lead pipes in our city, makes lead pipe replacement for every home mandatory, increases financial support for replacing lead pipes, strengthens tenant and worker protections, and creates a training program to equip DC residents with the good green jobs that will be necessary to get the job done citywide.”

D.C. Water has a map that lists materials its services pipes are made of. But due to the limited data, the agency acknowledges the information is incomplete and “might not be accurate.” Lewis George’s bill would require D.C. Water to create an accurate inventory with respect to 90 percent of all service lines by January 2027, and 99 percent of all lead pipes by January 2030.

“That’s a provision of the bill that we’re hoping to get feedback on through the legislative process,” says Will Singer, a senior legislative advisor to Lewis George. “[D.C. Water has] been cautious about committing to ambitious timelines. And I think that our bill reflects that caution. They don’t want to make commitments that they can’t keep.”

A third-party consultant for D.C. Water estimates the total cost of replacing all lead service pipes in the city is between $480 and $628 million. The water utility estimates that the District has more than 21,000 service lines with lead in them, but scientists and activists believe that at least 50,000 more lines may contain lead. 

“D.C. Water’s inventory of service lines is woefully inadequate,” Speck said during the committee hearing. “In my Chevy Chase neighborhood, residents have purchased their homes relying on D.C. Water’s map indicating that they did not have a lead service line, only to discover from their plumber that the line was indeed lead and had to be replaced.”