Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

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After Maxine Scott learned lead pipes carried water into her house, she began trekking to discount stores every two weeks to buy bottled water in bulk. The 81-year-old uses it for cooking and washing dishes. Her fear of lead poisoning is so strong, she’s scared to even bathe in the water that flows from her faucet.

“The issue has been going on for some years now … She spends so much money a month buying … bottled water or jug water,” says Tracy Johnson, Scott’s granddaughter. “I told her, ‘Grandma, you need to start keeping up with how much you spend on buying water.’ … She’s literally scared.”

The cost of bottled water seems modest compared to the roughly $5,000 price tag D.C.’s municipal water utility recently quoted Scott for the work to replace the lead pipes leading into her home. D.C. Water visited Scott’s house several months ago and confirmed she had a lead service line bringing water to the house she has lived in for decades. They estimated that the cost to replace the pipe that travels from her house to the public road would run around $4,000 to $5,000. A D.C. Water worker told Scott she would have to pay the cost out of pocket. 

“He said, ‘Can you sign this paper right here?’ So I looked at it. I say, ‘Why do I have to sign it?’” Scott says. “He said, ‘Well, you have to pay for your service being done,’ and I say, ‘No, I don’t want to sign. I don’t have the money.’”

The D.C. Department of Energy and Environment partners with D.C. Water to help defray some of the costs through the Lead Pipe Replacement Assistance Program, but the D.C. Water employee failed to mention the program to Scott, Johnson says. The program exists to provide assistance to homeowners with lead pipes on their property and non-lead pipes in the public space, based on their income and household size. But Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed budget raids all of the program’s $10 million funding for fiscal year 2024. Last year, DOEE spent more than $10 million on the program, and D.C. Water estimates needing $50 million more in funding in the coming years. 

According to D.C. Water, D.C. has more than 28,000 lead service lines. D.C. Water acknowledges that lead service line data provided on their website is based on information provided by its customers or acquired through physical inspections, and is therefore incomplete. Scientists and activists estimate the number of lead pipes in D.C. could be as high as 50,000.

The city has been working to replace its lead service lines for more than two decades after D.C. Water revealed in 2004 that tap water in two-thirds of tested homes had levels above the lead contamination limit allowed under federal regulations. 

In some neighborhoods, tap water lead levels remained extremely high as of 2010. A congressional investigation into the District’s water crisis resulted in a 2010 report called “A Public Health Tragedy: How Flawed C.D.C. Data and Faulty Assumptions Endangered Children’s Health in the Nation’s Capital.” The report outlined how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention failed to inform D.C. residents for years about what was then one of the worst water crises in the country.

“We have been grappling with the documented health harms since at least the 1980s. Twenty years ago, we were in the middle of the nation’s most severe lead-in-water crisis to date,” Yanna Lambrinidou, co-founder of Campaign for Lead-Free Water, said during the D.C. Council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment’s Feb. 28 hearing. “In stark contrast to the Flint Water Crisis, however, Washington, D.C., has to date failed to acknowledge the harm done, to provide assistance to affected families, or to implement a proactive and systematic program to fully replace all of its service lines.”

The city set a deadline to get all lead pipes out of the ground by 2030, but the process has been slow-moving, and D.C. Water has reported a low participation rate in its lead replacement programs. Bowser’s proposed cuts could further jeopardize the progress toward that goal and have left lawmakers and safe drinking water advocates to deliberate on how to keep the effort alive.

Tené Lewis, a native Washingtonian, became aware of the issue in 2019, when she was first invited to an NAACP meeting. Lewis has worked for more than four years with the NAACP’s D.C. branch on the campaign to reduce lead exposure and childhood asthma.

“I was not aware of the issue in 2018, nor was I aware of the issue in 2008 when I was residing on Mellon Street SE,” Lewis tells City Paper. “In fact, I thought the water was safe because … D.C. Water says that the water is safe on their … advertisement on school buses, et cetera. And so, turns out that wasn’t the case … There’s a lot of environmental issues that normal residents aren’t aware of. They rely on their councilmembers and governmental agencies and the utilities to protect them, which isn’t the case.”

Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who chairs the Council’s transportation and environment committee, says he is “very disappointed” to see the mayor’s proposed cut to the lead pipe replacement program. The Council did not replenish the funds in the proposed budget members will vote on Tuesday, but Allen says he’s been working with D.C. Water to identify federal funds to fill the gap.

“My assumption is that the mayor is looking at this as … kind of kicking the can down the road by taking the $10 million out now just hoping that we’ll come back in a couple of years and fund that gap,” says Allen. “I think overall though, that just is problematic because we’ve got a lot of work to do to fully fund this project over … the next six or seven years.”

An independent assessment submitted to the Council in September 2022 estimated that the total cost of the replacement program will range from $480 to $628 million. Earlier this year, D.C. Water General Manager and CEO David Gadis said the utility is re-evaluating the cost as it identifies more lead pipes and suggested they could implement rate hikes to help pay for the program.

“District residents are already facing very high water utility bills under a regressive rate structure, [and] rate increases would only compound that harm that residents have experienced due to the continued presence of lead pipes,” Anna Sewell, a supervising senior attorney with Earthjustice, said during environment committee’s April 6 budget hearing. “There are many sources of funding D.C. Water and the District can and must utilize before turning to rate increases.”

A draft report from Allen’s committee on the fiscal year 2024 budget says the federal funds allocated to the program, before Bowser’s proposed cut, are “likely sufficient” to cover expenses in fiscal year 2024 and maybe 2025. “But the Committee notes that the District will not be able to solely rely on federal money to complete this herculean task,” the report says. D.C. Water has said they will need “an additional $50 million in local funds in the coming years.”

“Particularly if the Committee moves forward legislation currently before it that would create a mandate for private-side lead service line replacement—which it plans to do—the District will need to increase funding to ensure that low-income residents do not bear the financial burden of replacement,” Allen’s committee report says.

Paul Schwartz, D.C. director at Water Alliance, says Bowser’s previous allocation of the $10 million for the removal of lead pipes was “an important marker” to signify that the city government had partial responsibility to help address the decades-long issue. He says some of the $10 million that was cut could have gone toward installing filters in household pipes that have galvanized lead or where the service line material is unknown.

“It looks a lot less likely today that we’ll be able to move that forward as part of the legislative package,” Schwartz says. 

Safe drinking water advocates are pushing the city to use every possible funding vehicle to pay for lead service line replacement before resorting to raising D.C. residents’ utility bills. The first step, Schwartz says, is for both D.C. Water and the city to maximize the eligible funding available to them from the federal government.

“They should prioritize this within all of the different budgetary choices that they have to make because of the historic harm and because of the current harm,” Schwartz says.

One potential source of funding, Schwartz suggests, is for D.C. Water to go on the municipal bond market and borrow money for the program at a low interest rate. He predicts that the measure would also allow for acceleration of the lead service line replacement program as an added bonus.

Safe drinking water advocates continue to point out examples of cities across the country that managed to resolve their drinking water crisis by swiftly replacing lead service lines without burdening their residents with increased utility bills at the same time. 

“It’s an interesting contrast that Newark, New Jersey, could get their lead lines out in about three years. And in Newark, and in Flint, Michigan, and in Benton Harbor, Michigan, they figured out financing that didn’t result … in any increase in rate payers having to pay money. And that doesn’t look like the direction that we’re going in Washington, D.C.,” Schwartz says.