Complaint to EPA accuses Providence Water of discrimination in lead replacement practices

A COMPLAINT filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency accuses the Providence Water Supply Board of violating federal discrimination laws in its policies for replacing lead pipes. / COURTESY PROVIDENCE WATER SUPPLY BOARD

PROVIDENCE – A group of local and national activism groups has accused Providence Water Supply Board of violating federal anti-discrimination laws for putting communities of color with low incomes at higher risk for lead exposure in their drinking water.

In a first-of-its-kind administrative complaint filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday, five groups – the Childhood Lead Action Project, Direction Action for Rights and Equality, South Providence Neighborhood Association, National Center for Healthy Housing and Environmental Defense Fund – allege that the municipal water system violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Specifically, the complaint lays out how Providence Water’s policy requiring homeowners to pay out of pocket for the up-to-$4,500 cost to replace lead pipes connected to their homes disproportionately hurts residents of color with low incomes who can’t afford the service.

“All families deserve lead-free drinking water, regardless of race, class or any other factor,” Childhood Lead Action Project Executive Director Laura Brion said in a statement. “Right now, ProvWater will only fully replace lead pipes for property owners with enough money to pay out of pocket or take out a loan. This amounts to obvious race and class discrimination and needs to stop.”

Providence Water still has 27,000 fully or partially lead pipes in its service area, and has exceeded EPA maximum standards for lead in drinking water for 15 of the last 16 years, according to a press release by the plaintiffs. The current practice of partial lead pipe replacement, taking out sections of lead pipes connected to public water mains but leaving them in the sections that connect to people’s homes, increases the risk of lead contamination for residents, according to research by the EPA Science Advisory Board cited in the complaint.

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The complaint calls on federal regulators to investigate Providence Water and mandate they “take action” to address the discriminatory practices, preferably by switching from partial to full lead pipe replacements for residents at no cost.

“The goal is not only to stop partial replacements but to fully eliminate lead service lines throughout the system,” the groups stated in a release.

Providence Water spokesman Christopher Hunter in an emailed response on Thursday said it takes the problem of lead in its water lines “extremely seriously.” Hunter outlined a strategy, developed with the state health department and EPA, to combat lead contamination in its water lines, including the option of a no-interest, 10-year loan for customers to pay to have the lead pipes connected to their homes replaced. Other strategies included treatment to prevent corrosion, more public outreach and education, a one-direction flushing system and “aggressive water main rehabilitation,” Hunter said.

As of December, the municipal water system was in compliance with EPA standards for lead and copper contamination, according to Hunter.

“In addition, Providence Water is working closely with the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank to maximize federal infrastructure bill funding to remove lead service lines,” Hunter said. “This program will be designed to prioritize lead service line replacements in disadvantaged areas throughout our service area.”

Providence Water has received more than $90 million in financing through the Drinking Water State Revolving Funds administered by the infrastructure bank along with a $6.4 million federal grant in 2020.

Providence Water supplies water to roughly 60% of the state, selling wholesale to seven municipal water authorities across the state: Bristol County, East Providence, Greenville, Kent County, LincolnSmithfield and Warwick.

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