A Biden Administration proposal announced Thursday would require municipalities and...

A Biden Administration proposal announced Thursday would require municipalities and utilities nationwide to replace all lead water pipes within the next decade. Credit: Randee Daddona

Municipalities and water districts on Long Island and nationwide would need to replace their lead water pipes within the next decade under a regulatory change proposed Thursday by the Biden administration.

The initiative could cost billions but likely have minimal impact in Nassau and Suffolk counties, experts said.

There are nearly 500,000 lead pipes in homes across the state, the sixth highest total in the nation, according to EPA estimates.

Consuming drinking water from lead pipes can be harmful, even at low exposure levels, leading to slowed growth and learning disabilities among children and cardiovascular, kidney and reproductive issues with adults.

What to know

  • The Environmental Protection Agency Thursday proposed a rule that would require municipalities and water districts to replace an estimated nine million aging and potentially harmful lead water pipes from homes nationwide.
  • Nearly 500,000 homes in New York, predominantly in the five boroughs and Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany, have lead piping that would need to be replaced, potentially at a cost of $2.5 billion to $5 billion.
  • Early estimates conducted by Long Island water providers indicate there are relatively few lead pipes in place in Nassau and Suffolk, as most area homes were built post-World War II and used copper piping.

“Lead in drinking water is a generational public health issue, and EPA’s proposal will accelerate progress toward President [Joe] Biden’s goal of replacing every lead pipe across America once and for all,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan. “ … EPA is delivering on our charge to protect all Americans, especially communities of color, that are disproportionately harmed by lead in drinking water systems.”

Common in older homes

Lead pipes are most commonly found in homes developed before World War II and in older industrial communities. The plumbing of many homes built after the war used copper piping. Congress banned the use of lead piping in 1986. 

Water districts nationwide were mandated, under a rule change during the Trump administration, to formulate an inventory of all lead pipes in their service area by October 2024.

Early results indicate that comparatively few lead pipes are in place across Long Island.

Jeff Szabo, chief executive of the Suffolk County Water Authority, which represents 1.2 million residents, said they're about 75% through their inventory and have found fewer than a half dozen homes with lead piping.

"Long Island, for the most part, was essentially built post-World War II," Szabo said. "Of course there were communities and villages and hamlets established long before that. But over the years, these [pipes] do get changed out."

Few properties with lead piping

James Neri, spokesman for the Long Island Water Conference, which includes water superintendents and private suppliers from Nassau and Suffolk, said his member agencies have also found few properties with lead piping.

"They're still in the process of collecting but, in general, a lot of suppliers have found very few," said Neri, who doubles as senior vice president of H2M architects and engineers.

Since 2017, six Long Island communities have received a combined $3.7 million in state funding to replace lead in their water pipes, including Point Lookout, Glen Cove, Southold and Riverhead.

To date, those funds have been used to replace nearly 200 lines, said Dan Lang, deputy director of the State Health Department's Center for Environmental Health.

The EPA proposal would, for the first time, require utilities nationwide to replace about nine million aging lead pipes, even if their levels are low. Utilities would also be tasked with improving their tap sampling, creating a service line replacement plan and providing better information to the public when elevated levels of lead are detected.

The public will have an opportunity to comment on the proposal — a virtual public hearing is scheduled for January. The EPA expects to publish a final rule in the fall of 2024.

Replacing a lead service line costs roughly $5,000-$10,000, Lang said. Using those estimates, replacing the state's 490,000 lines could cost between $2.5 billion and $5 billion. 

"On average, it's going to be a big number to get all of these out," he said.

Lower health care costs

Rob Hayes, director of clean water with Albany-based Environmental Advocates NY, said the EPA's plan would ultimately save money in lowered health care costs.

"The EPA proposal is the most important action to get the lead out of drinking water in U.S. history," Hayes said. "Lead pipes have been contaminating our drinking water for far too long, and they're finally about to be a thing of the past."

Lead crises have hit poorer, majority-Black cities like Flint, Michigan, especially hard. Lead pipes connect water mains in the street to homes and are typically the biggest source of lead in drinking water.

It remains unclear who would foot the bill for replacing lead pipes.

The 2021 federal infrastructure law provided $15 billion for lead service line replacement, although ultimately it will be up to the utilities to decide whether to pick up the costs or to pass it on to homeowners.

"This is definitely manageable," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Farmingdale-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment. "What we need is money. There's no secret on how to do this. It's just the issue of cost."

With The Associated Press

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