Kris Kobach leads effort to keep poisoning our drinking water

No one disputes that eliminating lead from drinking water is a needed but expensive undertaking. Rather than oppose the effort, the attorneys general should use their political influence to persuade their congressional delegations to fund it.

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Columnists

March 13, 2024 - 2:59 PM

A jug of lead-tainted drinking water is held at a meeting in Flint, Michigan, after it came to light in 2014 that its public water system was a health hazard, including causing brain and kidney damage. Congress banned lead plumbing more than 30 years ago, but millions of American homes still have lead service lines. (Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press/TNS)

Here are a few things we know about lead in drinking water:

• There is no known safe level. More than a decade ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ceased setting minimum acceptable standards for children’s blood lead levels.

That was because scientific studies couldn’t identify any concentration that didn’t have “deleterious effects” on children’s health. The only proper approach, the CDC said, is prevention “to ensure that no children in the U.S.” face any exposure to lead.

• Removing all the sources of lead exposure is expensive, but over the long term a sound investment, for it eliminates long-term effects that lead to massive healthcare costs, cognitive deficits and higher crime rates.

• Children in low-income and minority neighborhoods are the most seriously affected, because their families have few options to avoid exposure. The lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, erupted as a national scandal in 2011, but it was the tip of the iceberg.

• Industry has been opposing abatement programs for decades — in California, for instance, three companies that produced and promoted lead paint for homes fought a 19-year legal battle to evade the costs of residential abatement. They finally reached a $305-million settlement with several counties and cities in 2019.

That brings us to the latest initiative by the Republican attorneys general of 15 red states, aimed at stifling a lead abatement initiative of the Biden administration.

Led by Kansas Attorney General Kris W. Kobach, they’ve taken aim at a proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency to order the removal of some 9 million lead water lines across the country. The rule conforms with an action plan Biden issued in 2021 aimed at replacing 100% of the lead water lines serving homes in the U.S.

From his perch as attorney general, Kobach has been pressing his new cause — exposing Kansans to lead in their drinking water.

In a comment letter to the EPA, Kobach and his colleagues call the proposed rule “unworkable, underfunded, and unnecessary.” They also say the benefits “may be … entirely speculative.”

They suggest it’s an infringement of states’ rights, which is an argument that has seldom been heard since the Civil War.

The Kobach cabal, which encompasses the attorneys general of Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wyoming, further asserted that private homeowners would “bear the brunt of the costs.”

With one exception, all these claims are false. The one true assertion is that the mandate is underfunded. Estimates of the cost of meeting the EPA’s proposal run from about $45 billion to $60 billion.

Biden’s 2021 infrastructure bill allocated $15 billion for the purpose — but he originally proposed $45 billion, which was pared down in congressional negotiations.

As for the rest, obviously the rule isn’t “unworkable.” The EPA proposes to give localities and utilities 10 years to complete the mandated replacements, averaging 10% of the work per year. The red states say that’s an unreasonably “tight timeline.” But the rule makes municipalities with especially numerous lead pipes, such as Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Detroit, eligible for extensions.

The technology and engineering necessary for the job are well understood. Newark, N.J., replaced its more than 23,000 lead water lines via a three-year, $170-million program that commenced in 2019, all at no direct cost to homeowners — despite what Kobach et al. claimed. Green Bay, Wis., completed the replacement of its 2,000 lead lines in 2020, after a five-year effort that also required no out-of-pocket spending by homeowners.

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