In 2018, almost 30 cities across New York state received federal money to carry out a specific, urgent task: removing lead service lines that poison drinking water.
The city of Troy – which sits across the Hudson River and just north of Albany – was among them, receiving $500,000. But five years later, city leaders have failed to spend a single dollar of that money, and have yet to remove a single lead pipe.
The revelation blew up at a city council meeting this winter, raising all sorts of questions. Chief among them is why the city hasn’t spent the money.
Troy’s failure illustrates the challenges small cities face when trying to address environmental injustices like lead pipes. It’s not just a matter of finding the money – although that is often a significant hurdle. Weak city leadership and good old-fashioned bureaucracy can also get in the way of ensuring the money gets used for its intended purpose.
And with trillions more federal dollars pouring into municipalities all across the US, thanks to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the American Rescue Plan Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act), it’s incumbent on cities to figure out how to effectively use that money to get the lead out.
What went wrong
For almost five years, hardly anyone in Troy knew that there was $516,565 languishing in the city’s coffers, when it could have been funding crucial public health work.
That was until late last year, when a Troy mother, Jona Favreau, started asking questions. She found out that her child had elevated levels of lead in his blood, due to what she discovered were lead pipes in her home. Lead is a toxin that can stunt neurological development in children and cause a host of brain, kidney, and heart problems in adults. She contacted the city, and managed to find out about the grant funding, but couldn’t understand why it hadn’t been spent.
She eventually connected with the non-profit Environmental Advocates NY (EANY), which dug into the matter and realized Troy was the sole outlier among the other grant recipients that had long since leveraged the funds.
“There was no good reason not to spend this money,” said Rob Hayes, director of clean water with EANY.
Hayes submitted a report to the Troy city council on 2 February, outlining the non-profit’s findings. The public outcry was swift; soon, concerned Troy residents rallied outside city hall, demanding bold action from the administration.
At first, the only thing that Troy’s mayor, Patrick Madden, offered were excuses. At a city council meeting in early February, the mayor claimed the city was still setting up criteria to decide who would get the money first, and working on an inventory of the lead pipes. (At issue are not the city-owned water mains, which do not contain lead, but the service lines that connect homes to the city system.)
That was little consolation for residents. “The most unfair situation that the city could have come up with was not spending any of this money, and not replacing anybody’s pipes,” Hayes said.
The city’s public information officer did not make Madden available for comment for this article. When the city first found out in 2017 that it was receiving the grant, Madden told the Troy Record he intended to start the replacement program in a matter of months. Hayes said, generally speaking, there are a number of reasons municipalities might neglect to tackle an issue like lead pipes.
“A lot of cities are in this mindset of austerity, where their sole goal is not getting into debt or spending [too much] money, and that might lead them to not prioritize getting resources out the door that will really protect public health,” he said.
And lead pipes, specifically, are easy to ignore.
“In many cities, lead in drinking water and lead pipes are not always the most pressing or public issues that a community is dealing with. It’s really easy to forget about these pipes. They’re underground, we don’t see them,” Hayes said. “Until there’s public awareness and public anger about this issue, there’s this feeling that it’s not a top priority, when it needs to be.”
Across the river, a different story
Albany, which received the exact same amount of money in the same year as Troy, did not need a public outcry to motivate its lead pipe replacement program.
The city’s water department started looking at the issue of lead pipes in 2016. It estimated that Albany had about 13,000 lead service lines, and started to search for the many millions of dollars in the city budget and from grant programs it would take to replace them, according to Joe Coffey, the department’s commissioner.
The $500,000 grant was just one piece of the puzzle that Albany had already begun to assemble. “We were very grateful, but it doesn’t go very far,” Coffey said. It paid for the replacement of 74 lead service lines, according to the EANY report.
The city also didn’t wait until it had a full map or inventory of the lead pipes. Instead, the water department coordinated taking action with paving schedules; when a street was going to be torn up anyway, it used the opportunity to dig up any lead pipes it could find.
Coffey said the city is very much at the beginning stages of this effort. The department is still working to identify lead lines through a combination of city permit data and resident surveys, and it’s trying to figure out how to fund removing the rest of the lead service lines without raising water service rates significantly.
“It’s not an inexpensive proposition. It’s still going to cost millions of dollars to replace these services in all of our communities,” Coffey said.
But Albany is on the right track, and following the successful example of other American cities. In New Jersey, the city of Newark replaced all 23,000 of its lead service lines within three years – though that was only after NRDC exposed its inaction and filed a lawsuit. In Michigan, the small city of Benton Harbor has completed the inspection and replacement of 99% of water lines. And on the other side of the state, the city of Flint, which sparked national outrage over its contaminated drinking water, reports that 97% of its lead service lines have been replaced.
“Cities have a lot of pressure to deliver all kinds of services, and there’s never ever enough money, but you still have to do your job,” said Joan Matthews, a senior attorney with the Safe Water Initiative at NRDC.
A new tack in Troy
After the acrimony in February, the Troy city council approved a new plan in March to remove lead pipes. That includes setting up a funding stream for lead pipe replacement that very much mirrors Albany’s – and has the potential to become a statewide model.
Troy officials have now committed to replacing every lead service line in the city, at no cost to residents or homeowners. Much like in Albany, the city water department plans to start on streets slated for repaving this summer. Funding will be a combination of the $500,000 grant, some capital funds from the water department, and a $1.6m chunk of the money that the city received from the American Rescue Plan Act.
They need to keep their eye on the project. You can’t just announce you have a plan
Troy’s initial foray will only replace so many lead pipes. Chris Whelan, Troy’s public utilities superintendent, estimates this first wave of funds will be enough for a year and a half of work, and could replace about 320 lead service lines. In total, replacing every lead line in the city would cost about $30m, he told the city council, but did not give an estimated timeline for completion of the work.
Matthews said this plan is a great first step, but that there are more hurdles along the path. “They need to keep their eye on the project. You can’t just announce you have a plan,” she said. “You have to do it, and you have to do it correctly.”
Lead service lines are found in every US state, although they’re most heavily concentrated in the north-east and upper midwest, according to NRDC. The American Water Works Association, a nonprofit whose membership includes 4,300 utilities, estimates that it could cost upwards of $60bn to replace the estimated 10.5m lead service lines across the country. About $15bn from Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure law is going directly to lead service line replacement over the next five years.
Small cities, in particular, could look at the example being set by Albany for guidance, and to Troy as a cautionary tale.
Coffey, the Albany water commissioner, emphasized the importance of coordinating with other planned work – like street repaving – to get the work done efficiently. And he advised a reliance on grants, rather than hiking water rates, to fund the project without burdening residents.
NRDC has developed some best practices for lead service line replacement projects. Among them are keeping the community informed and engaged, prioritizing at-risk communities and tackling the project using well-paid union labor.
All told, Matthews is optimistic about Troy’s prospects. “It’s a good thing that they said ‘yes’ now,” she said. “We know what the problem is, we know how to fix it, we just have to have it be intentional that it gets done. It’s not rocket science.”
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