DC Should Prioritize Public Health by Replacing Lead Pipelines Without Delay

District of Columbia

Committee on Transportation and the Environment

July 6, 2023, Hearing on B25-0192, and B25-0195

Chairperson Allen and members of the Committee on Transportation and the Environment, I am Larry Martin and I chair the Clean Water Committee of the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club is the nation’s oldest, largest, and most influential environmental advocacy organization with about 3,000 dues-paying members in DC. We are a participant in the Campaign to Reduce Lead Exposure & Asthma. The identification and replacement of lead service lines on both public and private property needs to be a public health priority for the District. We have allowed our citizens – and in particular our vulnerable children, to be exposed to lead neurotoxin far longer than is conscionable.  As you know, lead toxicity is forever – there is no health repair or recovery. That this issue continues to plague DC residents in the 21st century should be considered criminal. Both the Mayor and Council have demonstrated that you do not share this sense of urgency. Had the Council’s Office of Racial Equity examined the consequences of rolling back funding for lead service line (LSL) removal in the 2024 budget, the environmental justice dimension of this public health emergency would have been painfully clear. While it splendid that today we are hearing the need for new legislation to address the lead menace, what the Mayor should do is declares a public health emergency pursuant to § 7-2304[1], and the Council should find new money as soon as possible to fully fund private-side LSL replacement - as already authorized[2].

Sierra Club supports both bills under consideration today, as they include many provisions we endorse and reflect key recommendations from DC’s LSL Planning Task Force. Key recommendations appearing in both bills are (1) identification of where the LSLs are that require replacement and (2) a mandate for LSLs to be replaced. Sierra Club supports both of these provisions. The current guess from DC Water on LSLs requiring replacement is 41,157,[3] but there is considerable uncertainty in this estimate.  A reliable inventory is essential for DC Water to plan its work efficiently. While we note that the LSL Planning Task Force Report concluded that test pits are the preferred for identifying LSLs we only recommend that legislation should require DC Water to reliably identify all LSLs in a definitive inventory. DC Water should be required to publicly report progress of its inventory program and this committee should actively conduct oversight.

The currently existing protocol for private-side LSL replacement is virtually random, results in lengthy permitting from DDOT, tears up streets all over, and is wasteful of limited funding for LSL replacement. DC Water reported on efforts to implement a block-by-block replacement program that would be more efficient, but many property-owners refused to have the private-side LSL replaced, even at no cost to them. This may be an indication of ineffective public outreach and education, and Sierra Club strongly recommends that legislation include provisions for stepped up public education on LSL replacement. However, it is not really possible to know how significant a reason this is, or whether improved education will dramatically improve participation.  For this reason, Sierra Club supports measures in both bills that will require a legislated mandate for LSL replacement. We recommend that the mandate be equally applied to all property owners. We recommend that the mandate must be accompanied by funding so that property owners are incentivized to comply and exempted from penalties if funding or the LSL replacement program falls behind statutory deadlines. We also recommend that there should be both financial and other penalties for non-compliance. Non-financial penalties should include denial of business license renewal, denial of a certificate of occupancy or a construction, and denial of the Homestead tax deduction.

As this committee knows, Sierra Club conducts stream clean-ups and is working to reduce single serving beverage container waste. We hear from DC citizens that they don’t trust their water supply – for reasons you have heard and will hear today, and so believe that water is disposable plastic bottles is their safest source. We see the result in disposable plastic bottles being the largest contributor by volume of waste removed from creeks and streams. This is a horrible reality, and DC must work to rebuilt trust in the safety of our water supply. We recommend that as an essential first step that DC Water provide and maintain pitcher-style or point of use filters that remove lead to occupants of properties with lead or unknown LSL at no-cost.  This will encourage citizens to trade in disposable water bottles for reusable. DC should also significantly subsidize inexpensive water filters to all residential water utility ratepayers. While many residents may already afford and use point of use water filters like Brettas, the most vulnerable and lower income residents may view that cost as beyond their day to day budget. Helping to make water filters more affordable will establish that the District government is finally accepting responsibility for the protection of DC citizens from water of uncertain safety until such time as there is unequivocal proof that DC’s water is safe from contamination.

Thank you for your kind attention. 

[2] codified at § 34–2159.

[3]DC Waters Lead Service Line Replacement Plan,” June 2023.