Based on the results of a successful pilot program, the Environmental Protection Agency has approved Denver’s $700 million plan to remove lead water pipes. The region’s water utility, Denver Water, will also receive $76 million in federal funds to help with the project from the infrastructure bill President Joe Biden signed into law in August, reports Denverite’s Rebecca Tauber.
In 2012, testing showed that Denver-area water had high levels of lead, a heavy metal that accumulates in the body over time and causes an array of human health issues. Children are particularly susceptible to the effects of lead, which can lead to slowed growth, anemia, hearing problems, hyperactivity, lower IQ and behavior and learning problems. The EPA has determined that no amount of lead is safe for kids.
Water lines made of lead are a major cause of lead poisoning in cities around the country. But replacing tens of thousands of lead pipes with those made from safer materials, such as copper, is expensive and labor-intensive. Some communities, such as Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey, have garnered international headlines for their lead pipe crises.
Denver banned lead pipes in 1971 and the federal government followed suit in 1986. Still, homes and businesses built before those dates contain lead service lines.
In 2020, Denver Water launched an ambitious project to replace lead water lines at 64,000 to 84,000 properties over the next 15 years. In the meantime, the utility also gave customers free water filters and pitchers and changed the chemistry of its water treatment method to help keep lead levels in check.
“The water we deliver to our customers is lead-free, but lead from customer-owned service lines can enter the water supply to homes,” says Jim Lochhead, Denver Water’s chief executive officer, in an EPA statement. “Removing these lines is the most effective way to eliminate this source of lead exposure, and we are committed to this program until every lead service line has been removed.”
So far, Denver Water crews have replaced 15,000 lead pipes—and that fast pace has impressed federal officials. The EPA has now decided that Denver Water’s trial program can move forward fully and could serve as a model for other cities with lead water pipes.
“From our perspective, Denver Water has one of the most successful [lead water line] replacement programs in the country,” the environmental group EDF told EPA in official comments, as reported by the Associated Press’ (AP) Michael Phillis.
The federal infrastructure law provides $15 billion overall for lead pipe work across the country. The $76 million awarded to Denver will help offset some of the costs of replacing the region’s lead pipes, but not all of it. The project is expected to cost an estimated $681 million, reports the Denver Post’s Conrad Swanson. Customers will foot some of that bill via water rate hikes, but the infusion of federal funds will save an estimated $235 per person, per Denverite. The cash will also allow Denver Water to finish the project one-and-a-half years ahead of schedule.
The EPA also applauded Denver Water’s approach to health equity and environmental justice in its lead pipe replacement program, citing in a statement the utility’s “priority on underserved communities and homes with larger numbers of infants and children.”
“Water contaminated by lead is a significant health concern, especially for our disproportionately impacted communities that most often are also people of color,” says Sondra Young, president of NAACP Denver, in the EPA statement. “Through our partnership with Denver Water, the Denver NAACP seeks to help provide more inclusive outreach and solutions for the communities most impacted by this significant health issue.”