Maureen Cunningham and Olya Egorov
American City and Country
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“We move Heaven and earth,” says Montana Birt. A transplant from Georgia, Birt is a pastor in a local church in Thorp, Wisc., the smallest of cities with a population of just more than 1,600. His more earthly endeavor, however, involves digging up and replacing lead pipes that threaten to poison his neighbors’ water in Thorp and in Eau Claire, Wisc., about 40 miles west.
We met Birt in the course of examining lead service line replacement programs in municipalities across the country. Big cities like Newark, N.J., or Denver often grab the headlines for their programs, but we set out to learn what smaller municipalities with lead pipes are doing to replace them.
The problem of lead in drinking water has a clear and viable solution: replace the lead pipes that connect water mains to individual homes and buildings. Unfortunately, the clear solution is muddied by the fact that some of that service line (from the curb to the house) is private, belonging to the individual homeowner or landlord. While removing the full service line is the best way to eliminate the threat of lead in drinking water, most municipalities replace only the publicside of lead pipes, leaving the other half of the problem in the ground. Partial replacement not only fails to address the whole problem, but in the short term, can disturb pipes and thus put homeowners at an even greater health risk. Alternatively, municipalities that require full lead service line replacement, but leave the onus on homeowners to pay the cost of private-side removal, put an unfair burden on low-income and middle-income communities who simply cannot afford it. This can also result in inequitable replacement across a municipality, in particular along racial and economic lines, according to an investigation of Washington, D.C.’s lead service line replacement.
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