“It’s not rocket science,” Joan Matthews, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told City Limits. “We know what the problem is. We know what needs to be done. And now we need to have our local government officials make it happen.” 

Jeanmarie Evelly

Editor’s note: This story has been updated since original publication to include comment from the city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

Up to 21 percent of New Yorkers may receive their water from lead plumbing, according to new estimates published Tuesday by the New York City Coalition to End Lead Poisoning (NYCCELP), which is urging the city to replace all of its lead service lines within the next decade at no cost to residents.

Three environmental organizations—Earthjustice, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund (NYLCVEF)—collaborated on the report, which implored the City Council and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to take aggressive action to address the problem.

“It’s not rocket science,” Joan Matthews, a senior attorney for the NRDC, told City Limits. “We know what the problem is. We know what needs to be done. And now we need to have our local government officials make it happen.” 

New York City is especially well-equipped to undertake this project, according to the report, since it has already collected requisite data on its water service lines, which connect the city water mains to residences. The City Council in 2019 enacted Local Law 65, which required the DEP to compile an inventory of every service line and the material from which it was made. DEP must update the data twice a year, publishing it both in a set and as an interactive map.

In February, the DEP reported that 59 percent of water service lines in New York City are not lead. Out of the remaining 41 percent, the DEP identified 16 percent as lead and 26 percent as possibly lead, meaning there are either no records or conflicting records about the material of the pipes.

By matching the property addresses of possible and confirmed lead service lines against consumer and voter databases, the NYCCELP report concluded that at least 318,812 households receive water from lead service lines, a number that could be as high as 902,974, depending on those where the material is uncertain. That means up to 1,845,119 individuals in the city may be drinking water from a lead pipe.

While lead plumbing has been banned from homes for decades, it can still be present in the pipes and fixtures of older houses and buildings, according to the DEP.

“We want people to understand that at the end of the day, we’re not talking about an obscure number of properties,” said Joshua Klainberg, the senior vice president for the NYLCVEF. “We’re saying through this analysis, one in five New Yorkers is drinking water from a service line that is lead or possible lead.”

The report also breaks down the data by neighborhood, listing Port Richmond, East Harlem, Coney Island – Sheepshead Bay, Jamaica, and Willowbrook as the five communities with the highest rate of lead service lines.

It then demands that the City Council implement and the DEP support a replacement program for all of its lead service lines, citing a failure of federal legislation—specifically, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Lead and Copper Rule—to keep the public safe.

“The Rule is not designed to, and thus does not, fully protect individuals from exposure to lead in their drinking water,” the report states. “It is also reactive and scientifically unsound, rarely requires lead service line replacement—the best available solution for reducing lead levels in drinking water—and misinforms the public.”

For many potential contaminants in drinking water, the EPA sets a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL). If the amount of contaminant in a water system exceeds its MCL, the system must take immediate corrective action to lower its levels below the fixed limit.

READ MORE: Here’s How NYC Tenants Can Test Their Drinking Water

But the EPA has not assigned an MCL for lead. Instead, the Lead and Copper Rule mandates that water systems take samples from a number of their sites, determine whether more than 10 percent of the sampled sites have lead levels at or above 15 parts per billion (ppb), and, if so, take systemwide corrective action. If fewer than 10 percent of the samples have levels of lead below 15 ppb, no action is required—even if 9 percent have 1,000 ppb or other strikingly high lead levels.

The report also characterizes the corrective action—which includes corrosion control treatment and public education, and occasionally includes lead service line replacement—as insufficient. As long as corrective action is taken, water systems remain in compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule, regardless of whether they successfully lower the levels of lead in their water.

“The federal rule is quite complicated… but it doesn’t do anything. It’s just steps of complications that people can’t really understand, and then they assume that they’re being protected,” said Suzanne Novack, a senior attorney for Earthjustice.

The report goes on to emphasize the need for a mandatory, comprehensive program over voluntary or partial replacement programs, which it says would be inefficient and potentially harmful to residents.

It examines Newark, N.J. as a case study, identifying its approach as a model for New York City. In 2019, Newark adopted an ordinance that mandated the replacement of all lead service lines and completely covered construction costs. It contained specific provisions that the NYCCELP recommends New York consider while creating its policies.

For example, residents in Newark—rather than just property owners—could consent to service line replacement so that landlords did not delay or inhibit construction. Another provision required property owners to show certificates of code compliance when selling or transferring their properties. Less than three years after launching, the city had replaced its 23,000 known lead service lines.

But New York City is home to approximately 135,000 lines that would need to be swapped out, which the city has estimated would cost about $2 billion.

The report puts that price tag at an estimated $1.35 billion. It urges the City Council to act immediately, stressing the record amount of funding available now. Grants and loans offered to New York State through the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, for example, could total up to $568 million over five years. “Simply stated, there are no excuses for missing this moment,” the report states.

“We’re just hoping that through this report, the City Council will recognize the urgency and the alacrity to act now, while we have the resources and the knowledge of how to do this,” Klainberg said. 

In a statement, DEP Commissioner Rohit T. Aggarwala said that while the agency agrees with the coalition’s goal of removing lead service lines from the city, “We don’t agree that the City, and ratepayers, should subsidize repairs to all private homes, especially where the homeowner can clearly pay for the repairs.”

“We desperately need federal and state funding, and this report purposely fails to mention that NYC has been arbitrarily prevented from accessing the full funding available to replace lead service lines,” Aggarwala continued, referencing state rules that exclude large cities from accessing certain grants.

New York treats its water to prevent lead from dissolving into it, ensuring the city’s “daily water supply is safe,” the commissioner said.