Gov. Dan McKee speaks about efforts to replace all lead pipes in Rhode Island’s water supply in front of a multifamily home on Ferncliff Avenue in North Providence, which is undergoing replacement, on Tuesday, April 4, 2023. Seated left to right are U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.); North Providence Mayor Charles A. Lombardi; and North Providence Town Council President Dino Autiello. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)
NORTH PROVIDENCE — Policymakers gathered in a North Providence multifamily home’s driveway Tuesday to rally around a bill that would put hundreds of millions of federal dollars toward the eradication of lead water service lines in Rhode Island over the next decade.
The Lead Poisoning Prevention Act would distribute $141 million in federal money, obtained via the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, through the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank to help water suppliers and private property owners to replace lead water service lines.
Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse recently secured an extra $3.3 million to address lead exposure within the Providence Water area.
“I’ve seen the results of lead poisoning in our children,” Rep. William W. O’Brien, of North Providence, the bill’s sponsor and a math teacher in Providence Public Schools, said. “I have about 10 to 15 years left (in my career) and I don’t want to see them again.”
The property where the press conference took place, 7 Ferncliff Ave., is among those North Providence said it plans to replace lead lines at for free in the coming months. The town, which expects to replace lead lines at approximately 50 properties this year, has been recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency as a leader in eliminating lead water service lines.
Also on hand were: Gov. Dan McKee, General Treasurer James Diossa, Senate President Dominic Ruggerio, North Providence Mayor Charles A. Lombard, North Providence Town Council President Dino Autiello, Lead Organizer at Climate Jobs RI Erica Hammond, North Providence Lead Service Line Removal Program Project Manager Dean Martilli, and CEO of the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank Jeffrey Diehl.
Under the legislation, water suppliers would be required to make publicly available an inventory of their lead service lines by October 2025. It would require tenants and property owners to be made aware of the presence of lead in their homes and that utility companies would be eligible for reimbursement for funding of private lead line replacements going back to January 2018.
I’ve seen the results of lead poisoning in our children. I have about 10 to 15 years left (in my career) and I don’t want to see them again.
– Rep. William W. O’Brien, of North Providence, sponsor of The Lead Poisoning Prevention Act
The money would be used for loans and grants to help owners replace lines, depending on income levels.
“Access to clean, safe drinking water should not depend on someone’s ZIP code or income level,” Ruggerio said. “It’s a matter of public health that needs to be dealt with now.”
Lead poisoning can lead to developmental delays, learning disabilities, premature birth, and more, according to the Mayo Clinic.
According to the Rhode Island Department of Health, 2.5% of children in Rhode Island under the age of six were diagnosed with lead poisoning in 2020, a steep decline from 14% in 2009.
Until 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defined lead poisoning as having a lead level in the blood of greater than or equal to 5 micrograms per deciliter. That definition was changed to greater than or 3.5 micrograms per deciliter in 2021.
A February press release from Rep. David Morales, of Providence, introducing a similar lead service line replacement said there are more than 35,000 lead service lines in Rhode Island. The majority of those, 26,000, are in Providence County. That bill would guarantee free line replacement for homeowners and tenants and prioritize those in neighborhoods with high concentrations of lead piping and those serving “disadvantaged customers.”
Activists applaud progress
One group excited by the apparent momentum and attention being paid to lead service lines is the Childhood Lead Action Project.
“We’re thrilled to see replacing lead pipes being placed on the agenda,” Devra Levy, a community organizer at Childhood Lead Action Project, said. “These bills meet the basic things that our coalition wants to see.”
I’m proud to be sponsoring the Lead Poisoning Prevention Act, which will support the ongoing efforts at the local, state, and federal levels to replace all lead pipes in RI’s water supply. Thanks to all of the colleagues and partners who are working on this important issue. https://t.co/zLPs0SQlki pic.twitter.com/ZTxngYQRkD
— Dominick Ruggerio (@SenatorRuggerio) April 4, 2023
Providence Water currently offers 10-year, no interest loans to property owners who choose to replace their pipes up to $4,500. However, a 2022 report in The Guardian found that the majority of those who obtained loans lived in the more affluent areas of Providence.
Since then, Providence Water has offered pilot free replacement funding using funds from the Water Infrastructure Improvement for the Nation Act funding in the Washington Park and Charles neighborhoods.
Providence Water told Rhode Island Current it replaced 124 private lead service lines in the two neighborhoods last year.
Levy said she hoped for stronger measures and her group will continue to vouch for them. They included protections from water utility rate increases to avoid passing replacement prices onto the consumer, another to allow tenants to request the replacements, and a third increasing community engagement around policies and projects.
“We are getting so much money to replace lead pipes, which is great,” she said. “What’s needed for a really successful project is input from the community.”
Those who took to the driveway at 7 Ferncliff Ave. were also aware the project was only just starting.
“We have to do more work,” Reed said. “It’s going to be a great effort over many years.
“It’s an issue that, if we don’t address it, will harm our most vulnerable population: our children.”
O’Brien said the bill is expected to go to the House Judiciary Committee in April.
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