December 16, 2021
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden promised his infrastructure proposal would replace every lead pipe in the country. Now the White House says it has a plan to deliver, despite a significant funding gap.
The administration’s plan for lead pipes and paints, unveiled by Vice President Kamala Harris in a speech Thursday, illustrates how officials are hoping to cobble together enough money to meet Biden’s goal through sources like the infrastructure law, Covid relief funding and the president’s stalled Build Back Better bill.
As many as 10 million U.S. households, schools and care facilities get their drinking water through lead pipes, and each pipe can cost thousands of dollars to replace. Lead poisoning can cause serious health problems, especially for children, whose physical and mental development can be severely affected.
The amount of funding at Biden’s disposal may determine whether the president can deliver on an issue that has come to symbolize how infrastructure shortfalls have disproportionately put low-income and minority communities at risk, especially in the wake of water crises in Flint, Mich., and Newark, N.J.
Senior administration officials briefing reporters ahead of Harris’ speech insisted they have sufficient resources to replace within a decade what they estimated were between 6 million and 10 million lead pipes and service lines. The exact number is unknown.
Replacing all of them could cost more than $60 billion, according to an estimate from the American Water Works Association, which represents water suppliers.
Biden initially sought $45 billion from Congress to complete the task. In the end, Biden got only $15 billion for lead pipes as part of the bipartisan infrastructure bill he signed into law last month.
Earlier in the year, Biden had cast the project as an economic win, saying it would “put plumbers and pipefitters to work.”
“It’s going to replace 100 percent of the nation’s lead water pipes so that every child and every American could turn on the faucet at home or at school and drink clean water,” Biden said in June.
The White House plan says the administration intends to augment the $15 billion from the infrastructure law with another $15 billion for pipes and paint in the Build Back Better Act, Biden’s domestic spending package that’s currently stalled in the Senate after passing the House in a largely party-line vote.