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After sharp drop in federal funding to replace lead water lines, state races to find out why

Why Mass. may fall behind removing lead from drinking water
WATCH: Deputy Washington bureau chief Tal Kopan joins us to explain why Massachusetts is getting less money than it needs to replace lead water lines.

WASHINGTON — Massachusetts’ federal funding to replace hazardous lead water lines was cut in half this year. With a deadline to contest the reduction just weeks away, state officials are racing to figure out why — and to get the funding restored for next year and beyond.

Members of the state’s congressional delegation are raising the issue directly with the Biden administration in a new letter, urging the government to review its processes and allow states a chance to fix the problem before funding is set in stone.

The last-minute scramble is a telling reminder that nearly 40 years after lead in water systems was banned, many states and utilities don’t know just how many lead water lines remain in service in communities across the country.

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At the core of the confusion is a survey conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency that it used to set funding levels. For the first time in the 30-year history of the survey, the EPA asked the water utilities to estimate the numbers of lead service lines in their systems. Service lines are the underground pipes that connect homes to water mains, separate from the pipes within homes.

But when the survey results were released in June, they were inconsistent with what outside experts have long estimated for many states. EPA had used a complicated formula to turn the survey results into statewide estimates of lead service lines, on which it then based funding decisions.

That process has drawn criticism and baffled Massachusetts officials.

The agency has announced it will allow water systems to update their responses this fall, but the state’s congressional delegation wants assurances that the problem will be not only be fixed, but reformed to avoid confusion in the future.

In a letter to the EPA’s administrator shared with the Globe, Massachusetts’ lawmakers in Congress asked the agency to ensure that when it allows states and utilities to correct their data, that it also issues clear and uniform guidance nationally to ensure an even playing field. If the issue isn’t fixed, they wrote, their state could be shortchanged $112 million over the four years left for the funding, according to estimates from the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust.

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“We are very concerned about what this could mean for the Commonwealth, and encourage you to hear the concerns from our communities and our state government,” the lawmakers, led by Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, wrote to EPA Administrator Michael Regan.

The agency said it had received the letter and would review it, and defended the survey as the “best available data” on the topic, though it will allow for corrections before next year’s funding.

The EPA sent its survey to a sample of water utilities, and the Healey administration said it was still trying to ascertain what went wrong with responses from the state’s providers to cause the underestimation. The Massachusetts Clean Water Trust also said that the utilities surveyed weren’t clearly informed that their answers would be used to determine funding. Though the overarching results and funding decisions were announced earlier this year, the full survey details were only released this month.

“There are very serious concerns with the data,” said state Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, who chairs the Clean Water Trust. “Massachusetts is working hard to identify the true number that we need to appropriately support all our communities. This process is labor-intensive but one we believe will result in different data than what EPA is using to make their decisions.”

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The survey highlighted how spotty the data on lead service lines remain.

“The result [of the survey] was kind of a mess, to be honest, because so many utilities had fallen down on the job and had never taken this seriously,” said Erik Olson, a senior director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. “A lot of the states and water utilities have really been remiss over the last 30 years in figuring out how many lead service lines they really have.”

The EPA has surveyed water providers every four years since the 1990s, but for the first time this year it included a question asking utilities about the number of lead service lines in their systems. The agency used those results in its formula to calculate how much money from the bipartisan infrastructure law states would get to replace those lines, last year allocating the money proportionally based on the state’s other drinking water needs.

But critics of that decision say the data that came from the survey were sloppy and untested. Unlike the overall participation rate of the survey, only three-quarters of those surveyed answered the lead question, and many of the answers came back as unknown. The EPA then developed a way to estimate based on the results.

The results varied widely. Illinois, for example, which is widely believed by environmental experts to have the most lead service lines, received more money to help its replacement efforts. But Florida, which is thought to have fewer lines than Massachusetts given its much more recent building boom, was found to have the most in the country, more than doubling its federal funding. Massachusetts had its funding cut nearly in half, to less than $34 million.

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The state believes the EPA’s system made Massachusetts a victim of its own success by rewarding states who are further behind and over-estimating their need or citing a high number of “unknown material” lines.

“Massachusetts has been a nationwide leader in identifying and eliminating lead service lines,” Democratic Governor Maura Healey said in a statement. “Losing these critical federal funds could have significant public health consequences, particularly for our environmental justice communities. We urge the EPA to...reinstate funding to prior levels.”

Whether Massachusetts can recover its funding could have significant consequences. The public health effects of lead are severe, with the potential to cause lower IQ and developmental problems in children and cause health problems such as high blood pressure in adults. While the United States has significantly lowered average lead exposure in recent decades by seeking to eliminate lead paint in homes and banning new lead piping, states and utilities have left old lead pipes and lines in service out of a belief that lead leaching into water was unlikely. But that stability can be compromised by changes in water composition, such as in the 2014 water crisis in Flint, Mich., or outside factors such as construction near pipes, public health experts say.

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But some experts say the wake-up call for states is coming way too late. Ronnie Levin, a Harvard public health instructor who has been at the forefront of lead research for decades, said the state’s dismay at the survey results is equivalent to a “dog ate my homework” response. Compared to many public health crises facing the world, such as climate change or obesity, where solutions and causes are complex and difficult, she said this one is opposite. The pipes are in the same place they have been for decades or longer, she noted, and need to be replaced.

“These are lead pipes, they don’t move — this just should not be the existential problem it is,” Levin said, calling out utility companies. “Where were you in 1986 when the ban was put in? You can’t be asleep at the wheel, wake up, and then be distraught. ... What EPA did is they said, ‘Money is going to follow your answer,’ and you know what, that changed everything.”


Tal Kopan can be reached at tal.kopan@globe.com. Follow her @talkopan.