PROVIDENCE — Advocates and state legislators on Thursday called for Rhode Island to tap $500 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds or other federal money to replace the estimated 100,000 drinking water pipes in the state that still contain lead.
Last year, as families huddled inside during school closures and stay-at-home advisories, the number of children poisoned by lead for the first time rose from 388 to 472, according to state Department of Health data. That 22 percent increase was even more alarming because it occurred as 17 percent fewer children were being tested, suggesting the extent of the lead poisoning is far greater.
“Lead poisoning is a serious children’s health and environmental justice issue,” Childhood Lead Action Project community organizer Devra K. Levy said during a news conference outside the State House. “It’s an injustice that affects hundreds of Rhode Island children every year, and it is entirely preventable.”
In addition to the threat of lead in paint and soil, lead in water contributes to the lead poisoning totals, she said.
“We are all here today because we know all Rhode Islanders deserve lead-free water,” Levy said. “We know the solution is full, free lead service-line replacement for all, and we have a chance to make that happen here.”
A total of 41 organizations and 26 elected officials joined in calling for Governor Daniel J. McKee and House and Senate leaders to use some of Rhode Island’s expected influx of $1.1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act money to replace lead pipes, and they noted the state could also receive a substantial amount of federal funds from the proposed infrastructure bill.
“It’s honestly outrageous that it’s 2021, and we are still here talking about lead in our drinking water,” Levy said. “It’s time to replace all the lead pipes.”
Lead poisoning is exacting its highest toll on children in Rhode Island’s four “core cities” — Central Falls, Pawtucket, Providence, and Woonsocket — places with older housing stock where 69 percent of the elevated lead levels were recorded and where 74 percent of the youth are children of color, according to state data. Meanwhile, in rural and suburban towns such as East Greenwich, Foster, Scituate, and Tiverton, no cases of lead poisoning were detected last year.
Terri Wright, community organizer for Direct Action for Rights and Equality, said lead poisoning “disproportionately affects the BIPOC and marginalized communities, low-income folks, and renters.”
Wright said she had lead poisoning when she was young. “Let me tell you, I stayed sick all the time,” she said.
“Clean water is a human right and a necessity to live healthier lives,” Wright said. “We have more than enough money here in Rhode Island to make Rhode Island thrive again.”
She led those assembled outside the State House in chanting “Get right, change the pipes.”
Liz Colón, a parent and advocate, said public health historians David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, authors of books such as “Lead Wars,” believe “the answer lies at the intersection of politics, class, and race. It’s only expensive if you think it’s not worth doing, which is a value of judgment about communities and people.”
State Representative David Morales, a Providence Democrat, said he represents the 02908 ZIP code, which has been one of the hardest hit areas not only from COVID-19 but also from lead-contaminated water pipes.
He called for the governor and General Assembly leaders to invest $500 million in replacing lead pipes, saying, “This is a permanent solution that will address decades of lead exposures and lead poisoning — a public health hazard which disproportionately affects children, low-income households, and people of color across all of our communities, especially within the urban core.”
Morales said the existing programs for replacing lead service lines are not sufficient or accessible. “Working people, renters, and homeowners on a fixed income are often unable to take out a loan, even if it is interest free, for the purpose of replacing lead service lines,” he said.
Half of the loans offered by Providence Water Supply for lead pipe replacement in the city went to those in the wealthy 02906 ZIP code on the East Side, Morales said.
“While it is important that every household that can afford to take out and replace their lead service lines do so, it is evident that there exists a significant equity gap based on income and ZIP code,” he said. Safe, clean drinking water is a “basic resource that should never, ever be viewed as a privilege,” he said.
Also, Morales said the proposal would put hundreds of plumbers and contractors to work replacing the lead pipes.
Advocates said they don’t have a detailed plan for the lead pipe replacement work yet, but they are ready to work with water authorities to develop that plan and to ensure it includes public input.
State Representative Rebecca Kislak, a Providence Democrat, noted that the nation has seen what can go wrong with lead drinking water pipes: the public health crisis that exposed thousands of people in Flint, Mich., to elevated lead levels between 2014 and 2019.
“We need to replace all of our lead pipes now,” Kislak said. “And I’m really excited that we have a plan to do it.”