STATE HOUSE – Following his advocacy from last year, Rep. David Morales has introduced legislation that would invest federal infrastructure funds to replace public and private drinking water service lines across the state that are contaminated with lead at no cost to property owners or tenants.
“Unfortunately, our state has over 35,000 lead service lines, of which, 26,000 are located in Providence County and disproportionally hurt working families, communities of color, and renters. As noted in countless studies and through the lived experience of people in our community, we know that drinking water contaminated with lead is incredibly dangerous and poses a health hazard for everyone, especially youth. Lead poisoning can contribute to high blood pressure, reproductive issues and cognitive damage. Now given the prevalence of this issue, I took the time to consult with our state agencies, water suppliers, and most importantly, advocates, to ensure that this legislation is aligned with federal standards and the needs of our community,” said Representative Morales (D-Dist. 7, Providence). “So let’s be clear: we have the research, we have the financial resources, we have the labor and we have the political support to ensure that all people across our state are guaranteed clean drinking water, regardless of ZIP code or socioeconomic status.”
Lead poisoning affects hundreds of Rhode Island children each year and has serious and long-term impacts on health. While the use of lead for drinking water pipes was banned over 30 years ago, there is currently no law that requires contaminated pipes be replaced. Rhode Island, like the rest of New England, has old housing stock with many homes utilizing lead service lines. According to the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank, Providence, Newport, Warwick, Pawtucket and Bristol are some of the communities that have been requesting the most support for lead service line replacement projects.
“Everyone deserves clean, lead-free drinking water, regardless of race, class or any other factor,” said Laura Brion, Executive Director of the Childhood Lead Action Project. “With unprecedented federal funding for lead pipe replacement available, state leadership is critically needed in this moment to make sure these funds are used as effectively as possible and, most importantly, that community needs and justice are prioritized in the process.”
The bill (2023 H-5318) would utilize funds from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and other federal sources to fund public and private lead service line replacements. The statewide effort would be coordinated by the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank, which would work with local water suppliers to develop comprehensive replacement plans. Once awarded funding, water suppliers would be required to prioritize replacement of lines that service disadvantaged customers, ZIP codes with the highest concentration of lead presence and those who are most sensitive to the effects of lead. For residential properties with an identified lead service line, water suppliers would communicate these findings and replace the private lead service line at no cost to the property owner or tenant. Additionally, water suppliers would not be allowed to request an increase in residential water rates as a result of receiving grants, loans, or other financial assistance for the purpose of replacing lead service lines.
Currently, homeowners are required to take out an interest-free loan to replace their lead pipes. But this, advocates argue, is insufficient and exacerbates inequities.
“Throughout our continued efforts to help organize tenants, it’s clear how woefully inadequate tenant protections are. That’s why it’s so important tenants are reserved the right to request lead service line replacements at the property they call home. Time after time, we’ve seen corporate landlords and slumlords across Rhode Island force inhumane living conditions on to tenants with little to no recourse. We fully support this legislation introduced by Rep. Morales as it empowers tenants to protect the health of their entire household: a right that everyone should have, regardless of socioeconomic status,” said Miguel Martínez Youngs, the Organizing Director for Reclaim RI.
Terri Wright, of Providence, had lead poisoning as a child. As a community organizer for Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE), Wright is hoping the state will urgently act.
“Growing up, I stayed sick all the time as I was frequently exposed to lead,” she said. “Living in a safe home with clean water is a basic human right and essential to leading a healthy life. With the federal aid we have available, we have the resources to make sure no one is exposed to lead hazards, especially in our water. All our communities need the reassurance that their drinking water is free of lead because without clean water, how will our bodies stay healthy? Considering that we all depend on drinking water, it is critical we pass this legislation to ensure we have a healthier Rhode Island for all our children, seniors, and families.”
The legislation has received strong support from community organizations, such as the Childhood Lead Action Project, the RI Working Families Party, Reclaim RI and many more. The legislation has been assigned to the House Finance Committee and includes over 20 co-sponsors representing different communities, from Providence to Newport.