Biden administration announces $5.8B in funding to clean up drinking water, upgrade infrastructure

The Civil Engineering Society gave the country's drinking water infrastructure a C- rating in 2021

ByJen Christensen, CNN, CNNWire
Tuesday, February 20, 2024
Biden administration announces $5.8B in funding to clean up drinking water, upgrade infrastructure
It will funnel the money to states, territories and tribes through the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Fund programs.

WASHINGTON -- The Biden administration on Tuesday announced $5.8 billion in funding that will go out to every state and territory to help fix an ailing water infrastructure that continues to put millions of Americans' health at risk.

Michael Regan, administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, and Vice President Kamala Harris will be in Pittsburgh on Tuesday to promote the administration's efforts to ensure a safer drinking water system and more reliable wastewater infrastructure. Projects underway in Pittsburgh - such as an effort to get rid of lead pipes - are among several across the country that are being funded through bipartisan 2021 legislation that designated $50 billion toward improving water infrastructure.

"President Biden and I believe that every person in our country should have a right to clean water no matter where they live or how much money they make," Harris said in a news release from the EPA. "With this investment, we are continuing our urgent work to remove every lead pipe in the country and ensure that every American has access to safe and reliable drinking water."

The federal government won't pick the projects funded by the investment announced Tuesday. Rather, it will funnel the money to states, territories and tribes through the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Fund programs.

The United States has a vast water system; more than 2.2 million miles of underground pipes carry drinking water, and more than 16,000 treatment plants handle wastewater, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. That allows most - but not all - Americans to have indoor plumbing and reasonably safe drinking water. But the infrastructure has been earning poor grades from the society for decades. The climate crisis has further tested the system, hurting the quality of source water due to salt water intrusion and increased runoff of sediment and pollutants, and decreasing the amount of water that is even available.

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The civil engineering society gave the country's drinking water infrastructure a C- rating in 2021, the last time it did the analysis - and that was an improvement from the D it got in 2017. The society rated the wastewater system even worse in 2021, with a D+; stormwater got a D. It's a report card the society said was not one "anyone would be proud to take home."

Many of the country's water infrastructure problems stem from a general lack of investment, according to the EPA.

Local governments typically can't afford to update water systems on their own. And even when they try, changes can lead to problems like the one in Flint, Michigan, where in 2016, scientists learned that residents had high blood lead levels due to corroded pipes from a new drinking water source.

No amount of lead exposure is safe, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Exposure, especially for children, can damage the brain and nervous system and lead to slowed development and growth and cognitive issues.

Flint captured international headlines, but its residents weren't the only ones exposed to dangerous lead through their drinking water. One survey from the nonprofit National Resources Defense Council found that between 2018 and 2020, 56% of the US population drank from water systems with detectable levels of lead.

New lead pipes have been banned in the US since the 1980s, but the EPA estimates that there are at least 9.2 million lead service lines carrying water to American residences. Nearly half a million children also risk exposure through school and child-care facilities.

In 2021, the Biden administration set a goal of replacing all of the nation's lead service lines within 10 years. The funding announced Tuesday will be used to clean drinking water, improve wastewater and sanitation, and remove contaminants, and it will also be used to replace lead pipes.

For years, lead levels in Pittsburgh's drinking water exceeded a key federal threshold for contamination, but officials have been working to clean it up.

Since 2016, Pittsburgh's Water & Sewer Authority said it has replaced nearly 11,000 public lead service lines and nearly 8,000 private ones, which puts the department about halfway to its goal of removing all lead service lines by by 2026.

Its efforts were turbocharged by money from the EPA's inaugural Aquarius Award in 2022, and those efforts have paid off. Lead levels in drinking water have declined significantly with the service line replacements and with the addition of orthophosphate, a food-grade additive that can protect pipes from corrosion, to the water. The latest testing showed lead levels at 3.58 parts per billion (ppb), well below the state and federal action level and a historic low for the city, the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority said this month.

Over $1 billion from the latest round of federal funds will also help municipalities clean up another big health challenge in Americans' drinking water: a group of synthetic chemicals called per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, or PFAS, chemicals that are considered dangerous to human health.

Almost half of the tap water in the US is contaminated with these substances, which are also known as forever chemicals, according to a 2023 study from the US Geological Survey.

PFAS are a family of ubiquitous synthetic chemicals that linger in the environment and the human body. Exposure is linked to problems like cancer, obesity, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, decreased fertility, liver damage and hormone suppression, according to the EPA.

In June 2022, the EPA issued health advisories that said the chemicals are much more hazardous to human health than scientists originally thought and are probably more dangerous even at levels thousands of times lower than previously believed.

In March, the agency proposed the first national drinking water standard for PFAS.

This month, the EPA proposed that labeling nine of the PFAS chemicals as hazardous. If the agency officially makes the change, it will be easier for the government to address PFAS as a part of its cleanup program.

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