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Rep. Tonko, Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan Discuss Water Safety Concerns

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Dave Lucas / WAMC
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(left to right) Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, New York League of Conservation Voters President Julie Tighe, Rep. Paul Tonko; Dr. Carrin Schottler-Thal, Section Head, Division of General Pediatrics, Albany Medical Center; Paul Webster of Clean and Healthy and Joan Leary Matthews, Interim Senior Director for Water Initiatives & Senior Attorney, People & Communities Program, Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc.

Capital Region Congressman Paul Tonko hosted a panel discussion in his Albany office Wednesday on the human impacts and local planning to remove lead drinking water components in active use.

Tonko, a Democrat, is one of the few engineers serving in Congress. Earlier this year he introduced AQUA, the Assistance, Quality, and Affordability Act, which would have invested $45 billion over 10 years to remove the country's millions of operating lead service lines. This week the Senate voted to pass a $1 trillion dollar infrastructure bill that includes $15 billion for the effort.

Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, also a Democrat, says city hall has been pro-active when it comes to lead remediation. Residents were sent fliers with their water bills which showed how to determine via a "scratch test" whether the service coming into their homes contained lead or not. She says while it gave many people peace of mind, it brought worry and concern to those affected by lead.

"So even though we can assure them that the actual lead that they're, the actual water that they're drinking from the tap, has lead levels that are below what's permitted by the EPA, we don't want any level of lead in our water. And so now they are asking, 'How can I get my lead service replaced?' And so we're working with funding that we have, we're pulling together grants, and we're trying to help match the costs. But sometimes if it's a tenant, they can't force their landlord to do the work. And so having the ability to be able to fund that replacement, so that it is a no brainer for the landlord, you know, then we can start to mandate certain things and move this very rapidly."

Sheehan says her remediation team has been identifying where lead services from water mains into buildings are located.

"We need to make sure that we know where those lead lines are, and that we have resources available to help offset the cost of replacing those, we're also looking at legislation that would require that if any work is done, you know, to the line that the entire line be replaced? It doesn't make sense to replace the lateral and then not replace that last piece that goes into the house and into either the basement or especially disturb it? Right? That's right, because we put what we've learned, right, is that when you disturb it, you cause more lead to be present in the water."

Paul Webster, Director of programs for Clean and Healthy NY, wants residents to know they won't be billed for such efforts.

"It's not going to cause your property taxes or your school taxes to increase in terms of replacing the lines, especially the lines that are in our schools. We found that you know, in many cases, when New York schools were tested, they found elevated levels of lead in the school pipes. And this would allow some assistance."

Tonko says up to 10 million lead service lines are in use around the country, including lines serving 400,000 schools and childcare facilities.

"It's within our control. It's a matter of prioritization. And a budget is that. It's our statement of priorities. And I would hope that, with a great amount of research that comes forward, with the documentation of so many children, a growing number of children, that are impacted with the consumption of lead, that we will learn from this, we will show great sensitivity and will avoid the cost of a lifelong impact on these young lives. Our children are a precious resource, and we need to act accordingly. And we need to again, advance the cause of lead pipe removal as a high priority item in these budget negotiations."

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