Providence Water faces civil rights complaint over disproportionate lead exposure risk – Richard Asinof

by Richard Asinof, ConvergenceRI

No one disputes that lead poisoning of children is a terrible and preventable chronic disease, one that causes life-long damages. No one argues with the fact that lead in drinking water is a correctable scourge. And, most everyone agrees that Rhode Island has put into place some of the best laws in the nation promoting the screening of children for lead poisoning and housing regulations to remediate against lead hazards.

The problem, as it often is with laws and health policies, is the question: How well are they enforced? The COVID pandemic, for instance, disrupted pediatric screenings for lead poisoning in March, April, and May of 2020, creating a serious gap in identifying children who may have been lead poisoned.

Because Rhode Island has some of the oldest housing stock in the nation, much of it built before 1978, before the use of lead paint became restricted, housing codes forcing landlords and owners to comply with lead paint remediation are some of the most comprehensive in the nation. But, it often depends on how aggressive municipal legal departments are willing to be in enforcing such building codes.

So it is with efforts to remove lead in drinking water by replacing lead pipes, particularly the lead service lines connecting water mains with residential properties in Rhode Island.

In a first-of-its-kind action in the nation, the Childhood Lead Action Project, in partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund, filed an administrative complaint on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, against the Providence Water Supply Board [Providence Water], charging that the water utility had disproportionately increased the risk of lead exposure in drinking water for Black, Latinx, and Native American residents, under the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, any organization that receives federal funds cannot discriminate – even unintentionally – on the basis of race, color, or national origin in the services they provide. Since 2015, Providence Water has received more than $90 million in Drinking Water State Revolving Funds as well as $6.4 million in a Water Infrastructure Improvement for the Nation Act in 2020.

Joining in the civil complaint were three other groups: Direct Action for Rights and Equality; the South Providence Neighborhood Association; and the National Center for Healthy Housing. Together, the five groups are seeking to change the way that Providence Water replaces its lead service lines – pipes that connect the water main under the street to individual homes, the greatest source of lead in drinking water in Providence.

Providence Water has more than 27,000 full or partial lead service lines in its service area, according to the new release about the civil complaint. Providence Water has exceeded the EPA’s actionable level for lead in water for 15 of the last 16 years. And, data from a report by U.S. Government Accountability Office found that people of color, renters, and families living in poverty were more likely to live in homes serviced by these pipes.

The civil complaint is the latest part of a coordinated strategy being led by Childhood Lead Action Project to push the state to develop a statewide plan to replace all lead water pipes in Rhode Island, according to Devra Levy, the community organizer with Childhood Lead Action Project. In early October, the group held a news conference on the steps to the State House, asking the state to commit resources from the $1.1 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to pay for the effort. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Getting the lead out of drinking water in RI.”]

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Devra Levy, community organizer with the Childhood Lead Action Project, who has been directing the efforts around the civil complaint with the EPA. Levy is following in the footsteps of Roberta Hazen Aaronson, longtime executive director of CLAP, and Laura Brion, the current executive direction, in advocating to eliminate childhood lead poisoning in Rhode Island.

ConvergenceRI: You are continually trying to chip away at the impediments, if that is the right way to phrase it, in order to create a comprehensive strategy to get the lead out of water and out of housing. How does the latest effort, the civil lawsuit with EPA, fit into the overall strategy?

LEVY: First, it is not a lawsuit, it is an administrative complaint, that is the official term.

ConvergenceRI: What is the difference?

LEVY: The difference is that the administrative complaint is something that is specifically allowed for under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which says: “Entities can file an administrative complaint with the agency that provides federal funding to the recipient.”

The way that we are able to do this is because ProvWater [Providence Water] received funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA].

It is not a lawsuit; it is not something that is going to court. It is a complaint that we are submitting to EPA, saying that they are paying for services that are discriminatory. And, we are putting the onus on them to make sure that is no longer the case anymore.

ConvergenceRI: Are there precedents for this in terms of administrative complaints that have been successful in dealing with EPA?

LEVY: This is actually the first complaint of its kind, the first time that someone has used this ability to submit this complaint. We are looking forward to seeing how this is handled at EPA. But it is something that is explicitly allowed for.

ConvergenceRI: Who came up with the strategy?

LEVY: We got support from the Environmental Defense Fund. And, we discussed some of our options with them. This was one [option] that they brought up. It is something that has been discussed in other places, but has never actually gotten to the point of submission. Other advocacy groups in Chicago and some other places have discussed this option.

But it seemed, from our perspective, and from the Environmental Defense Fund’s perspective, that the right set [of circumstances existed] in Providence, because the case that we lay out is so clear. The discrimination is not difficult to show how it is happening.

ConvergenceRI: Why is it so easy to show the discrimination?

LEVY: For a number of years, ProvWater has had this practice in place that, as they are doing water main replacement around the city, replacing the pipes that run down the middle of the street, they also have the opportunity to replace the service lines, the pipe that runs from the main in the street to each individual house.

And the service lines are the main source of lead contamination in a lot of old houses, because those service lines were made of lead. So, eliminating [the lead service lines] is the way to eliminate the vast majority of potential lead contamination in the water.

What ProvWater is doing, instead of just replacing that full service line, is, in many cases, they are just replacing half of it; they are cutting the pipe in half, and replacing the half [of the pipe] that runs from the main to the property line.

They have been offering a loan to property owners to pay to replace the other half of the pipe that runs from the property line to the house. That loan can be up to $4,500. It is a zero-percent interest loan. ProvWater has been trying to make [the costs of paying for lead service line replacements] more accessible, but it is still something that we know is out of reach for a lot of people. And, some people turn down the offer, even if they could afford it technically, especially people who don’t actually live in the house.

The way that this [practice] is discriminatory is that making property owners pay for a full lead pipe replacement means that some people are getting left behind. And, as we wrote out in the complaint, based on data, the people being left behind are people of color, renters, and low-income people.

The people who can afford to take out this loan are disproportionately white; the largest number of loans has gone to the 02906 ZIP code [in Providence], which shows us something right there about who is able to access the loans.

[We believe] the practice is discriminatory, not necessarily deliberately, but in its effect, in the way that it allows wealthier people who are disproportionately white to fully replace their lead service lines, while other people are left with half-a-lead service line, and with the spikes in lead levels that are caused by that partial replacement.

ConvergenceRI: How long do you think it will take to resolve this? Is this going to take weeks? Months? Years?

LEVY: We don’t know. It depends on how the EPA responds, and it depends on how ProvWater responds. We are hopeful that ProvWater will change their practices right away, and start paying for full replacements for everyone.

But, in the event that that doesn’t happen, what we are expecting might happen, from EPA’s end, is for them to set up meetings between the organizations that submitted the complaint, so ourselves and the other four organizations, with ProvWater, that are monitored by EPA, to allow us to work toward a solution that everyone is satisfied with.

I don’t really have an answer to how long that is going take, especially because it is the first case of its kind.

ConvergenceRI: In the country?

LEVY: Yes.

ConvergenceRI: How does this fit in overall into your broader advocacy of the policy changes that you are pursuing? It has been a couple of months since you took to the steps of the State House to ask for your fair share of the federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act funds to address eliminating lead in drinking water in Rhode Island. Where does that effort stand? Have you gotten any response? Do you how much, if any of the ARPA money, is being targeted to do that?

LEVY: To answer your first question, I see this as the next step in our campaign. Even though our campaign for funding full lead place replacement thus far has been focused on the state, this complaint is specifically focused on ProvWater, on a smaller level.

What we are saying is that ProvWater needs to find a way to fully fund lead service line replacement. But we also know that our state has the opportunity to let not just Prov Water do this, but every utility in the state.

The question about what funding is available is really important here as well. When we held that press conference, the Infrastructure Bill [before the U.S. Congress] had not yet passed. The big news now is that from the Infrastructure Bill, Rhode Island has over $140 million specifically for lead service line replacement. Not coming from any other funds that could go to other places, but specifically for that. Which is great. It is still not going to be enough. But it is the most money we have had for lead remediation in Rhode Island, maybe ever.

But now, what we want to make sure is that money is spent right, and what we lay out in the administrative complaint is how ProvWater has made mistakes in the way that they have done lead service line replacement, and done it in a way that is not equitable, and that is not helping everyone.

Part of the reason that we want to see the state making a plan for how that [$140 million] gets spent is because we don’t want to see those mistakes made again. We want to see the state and the municipal-level water utilities listening to the community and listening to evidence from communities around the country, and from national lead and water experts.

We are saying: Here is how you need to spend this money. It needs to be full replacement; it needs to be fully paid for, prioritizing communities that are most affected by this, and happening quickly and efficiently in a way that does not cause spikes in lead levels in the water, in a way that doesn’t leave half a lead pipe in the ground for some people, in a way that is truly helping everyone.

ConvergenceRI: What you seem to be saying is that there needs to be some coordination at the state level to manage this.

LEVY: Exactly

ConvergenceRI: That this is not something any of the current state agencies can take on and manage, on their own. Rhode Island Housing maybe has part of this. The Department of Health maybe has another part of this. The State Infrastructure Bank might have a part to play. Is there any sense that the state is willing to engage on that kind of macro level to manage what has to be done?

LEVY: That is a great question. That is what we are hoping for. Following the press conference in October, we have held meetings with nearly all of our major state leaders. We spoke with the R.I. House Speaker; we spoke with the R.I. Senate President’s office; we met with the Governor and the Lt. Governor. We heard some support for what we were asking.

Certainly, no one is opposed to replacing lead pipes. I think we heard some push back about how much it is going to cost. And, we heard some pushback on the coordination that is needed.

My take-away from the meeting with the Governor was that he seemed unwilling to have his office be the leader on coordinating this project. He encouraged us to talk to cities and to talk to municipal water authorities, to encourage them to pull together a plan.

But clearly, as we laid out in the complaint, when utilities have done this before, they haven’t done it right. And, it is done differently in every city across the state. It is done differently by every water utility, and it is [often] done poorly.

I am really hoping that this complaint will drive home the point to the Governor’s office, and to all of our state leaders, that what we need is a coordinated plan on a statewide level to make sure that this money is spent right, to make sure that there are major contracts that can be signed [for this work]. This is something that is really important to union leaders that we have spoken to as well. They don’t want to see this work done piecemeal, either.

They want to see major contracts, and they want to see these jobs go to people who know what they are doing, and who can get paid union wages for doing the work.

I am hoping that this complaint will drive home the point that the state needs to listen to community members who are telling them how this should be done, and to make a plan to make sure that it happens, because clearly they cannot rely on water utilities to do this the right way.

ConvergenceRI: Do you see this discussion as having electoral potential in its impact, given that this is an election year, in the understanding that Rhode Island needs this kind of coordination?

LEVY: As a 501[c] 3 nonprofit, we cannot endorse candidates. But we are happy to talk to any candidate who wants to talk to us, about what we would like to see happen.

ConvergenceRI: I also saw a recent story where you had been successful in getting the attention of Mayor Maria Rivera in Central Falls in promoting work on greater enforcement of housing codes related to lead poisoning prevention. Do you see enforcement as part of a one, two punch – bringing this administrative complaint, looking at the broader picture of eliminating lead in drinking water, and, at the same time, pushing municipalities to take more responsibility in protecting their residents from lead contamination?

LEVY: Yes, we are so lucky in Rhode Island to have some of the strongest lead paint regulations in the country. The problem, as you know very well, is that with those regulations, just because something is in the law doesn’t mean that it is followed; it doesn’t mean that it is enforced.

What Central Falls has done is huge. They have really stepped it up in terms of not just the enforcement itself but also the level of investment that we are seeing from the city. They have hired staff who are dedicated to working on lead; the staff are trained on lead laws and they know how to speak to landlords.

They are working closely with Rhode Island Housing, with the Lead Safe Homes program, so that they can really have that carrot-and-stick approach together – providing the opportunity to get lead remediation funded, while also bringing property owners to court if they don’t take that opportunity. That is the kind of investment that we want to see every city [in Rhode Island] doing. City-level code enforcement is actually the main way that tenants rights for safe housing can be defended.

When it comes to lead in water, we have a lot more progress to make.

ConvergenceRI: What is happening in the schools regarding lead? Are you considering looking at the problems of lead contamination in the water systems in schools? Does that become another potential leg of the strategy moving forward?

LEVY: Most of our work on lead poisoning prevention has focused on residential and water service lines at homes.

But there are a lot more lead pipes out there. We know from a study that the R.I. Department of Health did a few years ago, that there are schools that have lead in their drinking water. We definitely want to see that addressed as well. We recently signed on to the Climate Jobs Green and Healthy Schools coalition.

But, we are hoping that our first victory will be to see a plan to replace residential lead service lines for all of Rhode Island. But that is not going to be the end of the work, looking not just at schools, but also looking at state-run buildings.

There is a lot more work to be done – after we make sure that there is a statewide plan to address the largest source of contamination, which is residential lead service lines.

I also want to say that lead contamination in drinking water is especially risky for infants who are drinking formula – and that exposure is mainly going to happen at home.

ConvergenceRI: How does the Childhood Lead Action Project determine its priorities?

LEVY: Our organizing model at Childhood Lead Action Project is not one where we choose a cause and ask people to sign up. We listen to the problems that people are facing in the community, and then try to build a platform for them to be able to do something about it.

There is so much going on right now, and all of it is really important work. We have stood beside other advocates asking for more resources for housing, for health care, and for healthy schools. I do not think what we are asking for is in competition. I think all of us are advocating for better living conditions, based upon what we hear from our communities, and what they are experiencing.

Part of the reason that our coalition has focused more and more on lead in water in the past couple of years is because we have heard more concern about it. I think it has gotten more national attention since Flint. But I also think, here in Rhode Island, people have become more aware of the problems that we have with lead in water here. Our increased focus on lead in water was in direct response to what we are hearing from people we work with, who kept asking us more questions about it, and expressing more concern.


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Richard Asinof

Richard Asinof is the founder and editor of ConvergenceRI, an online subscription newsletter offering news and analysis at the convergence of health, science, technology and innovation in Rhode Island.