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Environmental Advocates NY's Rob Hayes discusses EPA's lead pipe removal goal

Rob Hayes
Lucas Willard
Rob Hayes

Aging pipes remain a major hurdle as municipalities look to upgrade their infrastructure. This week, the US Environmental Protection Agency announced a proposal to require water utilities to replace 100% of lead pipes in their distribution systems over a 10-year period beginning in 2027. The EPA is currently taking comments on the proposed updates to the Lead and Copper Rule.

To learn more about the EPA’s goal and its impact in New York, WAMC’s Lucas Willard spoke with Rob Hayes, Director of Clean Water at Environmental Advocates NY.

Replacing all of the nation's lead pipes in a 10-year period is absolutely feasible. We've seen cities replace all their lead pipes on an even faster timeframe in some cases. Newark, New Jersey is a great case study. They replaced all of their 23,000 lead pipes in just three years. So we know that when the money and the political will is there, we can get the lead out of drinking water.

And that's the big question, money and political, will because the EPA can go the way of the political winds as they change from year to year and election cycle to election cycle. So, are you confident that this is something that Washington can get behind?

I think this plan will stand the test of time, you know, there is more funding than ever to get the lead out of drinking water. There's $15 billion nationwide in President Biden's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. And we're hoping that Governor Hochul will invest more money to replace lead pipes in the upcoming state budget when she releases her proposal in January.

What are you looking for, as far as the dollar amount or an effort at the state level to get the lead out?

We need Governor Hochul to build on EPA’s plan and really put New York State at the top of the pack when it comes to getting the lead out of drinking water. You know, we have a lot of federal funding to get to communities to start this work. But it's not going to be enough to replace all of New York's estimated 500,000 lead pipes. That's why we're calling on Governor Hochul to invest at least $100 million in dedicated funding to get the lead out of drinking wate in her state budget proposal.

There is a piece of legislation in New York state called the Lead Pipes Right to Know Act. That's something that EANY has advocated for in the past. What can you tell me about what this legislation actually does?

We were really grateful that earlier this year, the state legislature passed the Lead Pipe Right to Know Act. And the core of this bill is all about transparency. We want to make it easier for New Yorkers to find out if they have a lead pipe. So, the Lead Pipe Right to Know Act would require that all of this data being generated by water utilities about where lead pipes are located, be easily accessible to the public online, including an interactive map form. Governor Hochul has about a month left to decide whether or not to sign or veto this bill, she should absolutely sign it. This does not in any way conflict with the EPA’s plan and really just builds on it to make it easier for New Yorkers to find out what's in their water.

So, what is the alternative to lead pipes? Because I've also heard some concerns from environmental groups or others about PVC or plastic pipes. What material does EANY prefer?

The good news is that there are safe alternatives to lead pipes, the best material you can use is copper piping. This has been used for decades by water utilities. It's been proven safe time after time, and it holds up over time. So, we know that when you put copper piping in place, that's going to last and that's going to keep people safe when they turn on the tap.

Now, Rob, I know your specialty over at EANY why is clean water. But I have to ask you about the UN's recent report on 2023 being the hottest year in modern record that we've observed. And there are predictions that 2024 could beat that record. What is EANY doing right now in regards to climate legislation that you hope would have an impact in the battle against climate change?

You know, climate change is an existential crisis. It is the defining issue of our time. We need bold climate action. When the governor and the state legislature return to work in January. We have been big supporters of the NY Heat Act that would make sure that we're transitioning off of gas systems and make utility bills more affordable for New Yorkers. You know, that is a great place to start when thinking about what can states and New York in particular be doing to combat the climate crisis.

So, Rob, we've talked about EPA’s plans to address lead pipes, but is there anything else from the agency that you're looking forward to, any announcements or policy changes?

Absolutely. There should be one more announcement from EPA coming before the end of the year, and that's relating to toxic PFAS chemicals in drinking water. We should see new and stronger standards on chemicals like PFOA and PFOS that have polluted drinking water across the state here. Those stronger standards are going to mean that more work is done to clean up more drinking water supplies across New York State and that will be a wonderful thing to see.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.