New report reveals environmental justice issues with lead pipe replacement – and a path forward

Study of Washington, DC finds low-income and African American residents are most at risk

March 4, 2020
Sam Lovell, (202) 572-3544,

(Washington, DC – March 4, 2020) Today, American University’s Center for Environmental Policy (AU) and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) released a report finding that programs relying on customers to pay to have their lead pipe fully replaced put low-income and African American households at greater risk of lead exposure. Using data on Washington, DC, researchers found that residents in wealthier areas were over two times more likely to pay to have their lead pipe fully replaced during water utility infrastructure projects. Fortunately, DC has a new policy that takes steps to resolve the problem and presents a model for other communities moving forward. But this study reveals major environmental justice concerns that need to be addressed in the Environmental Protection Agency’s updated Lead and Copper Rule. 

Regular water infrastructure work can disturb service lines, which poses an issue when the pipe is one of the 9.3 million lead service lines (LSL) that still provide water to homes across the country. While the best approach to protect residents from lead exposure is to fully replace the LSL and take special precautions, communities typically expect households to pay to replace the portion of the pipe on private property to avoid a partial replacement. Partial replacements can significantly increase short-term lead in water levels and fail to provide the long-term benefits of a full replacement. 

Since low-income households may be unable to pay for a full LSL replacement, this practice raises health equity and environmental justice concerns. AU and EDF evaluated these concerns using data on more than 3,400 LSL replacements conducted in Washington, DC between 2009 and 2018.  

“We found striking differences between the neighborhoods in the patterns of lead pipe replacement,” said Dr. Karen Baehler, the lead AU researcher. “In the wealthiest areas, two-thirds of households fully replaced their lead pipes during ongoing infrastructure projects, compared to only one quarter in areas with the lowest median incomes – a 2.3-fold difference.  We also saw environmental justice concerns with full replacements initiated by residents outside of infrastructure work, with such replacements largely taking place in wealthier, predominantly white areas of the city.” 

“With its new program, Washington, DC continues its leadership role in developing innovative lead pipe replacement policies,” said Tom Neltner, EDF’s Chemicals Policy Director. “Utilities in Denver, Cincinnati and the Indiana and Pennsylvania subsidiaries of American Water also serve as models for the 11,000 communities in cities, suburbs and rural areas across the country with lead service lines. Cities like Chicago, Cleveland, and New York City – each with over 100,000 lead service lines – should take heed.” 

The study findings have particular relevance because EPA is in the process of updating the federal Lead and Copper Rule that regulates lead in drinking water. The proposed revisions could result in many communities adopting programs similar to those implemented in Washington, DC during the period we studied. This new analysis demonstrates that wealthier customers will be more likely to participate in such programs, leaving low-income and minority households with increased risk of harm from lead. If this concern is not addressed, the final rule could make health equity and environmental justice disparities worse, not better, than under the current rule.  

“Replacing lead pipes across the country is critical to protecting children from lead, but we need to ensure that the work treats all residents – regardless of race or income – equitably,” said Sarah Vogel, Vice President, EDF Health. “This study underscores the need to make sure these programs don’t leave low-income and minority households behind.”

See the full report for more details on our analysis of Washington, DC and how states and communities can better protect residents by equitably supporting LSL replacement.

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