Published with the cooperation of Motif Magazine.
Providence locals have long boasted that their city tap water is among the best in the country.
U.S. News and World Report, however, has other ideas: Rhode Island sits at a middling #21 for drinking water quality in U.S. News national rankings. As late as 2010, Environmental Working Group declared Providence water second-best in the nation for water quality among large water systems. EWG now reports that there is a total of twelve contaminants in Providence tap water, three of which exceed EWG health guidelines.
After the disastrous results of lead in the water of Flint, MI, the public utilities and their customers have paid more attention to water quality, focusing especially on lead. The EPA estimates there are millions of lead pipes delivering the country’s water. Water systems were laid over a hundred years ago in Providence and other cities. Lead pipes were not prohibited until the federal Safe Drinking Water Act was amended in 1986.
Providence spent almost $21 million between 1915 and 1929, $500 million in today’s dollars, on a reliable source of water, the Scituate Reservoir, and the pipes to deliver it to a growing population of industrial workers. The reservoir was created by condemning 18,000 acres of land, including towns and villages whose residents were forced from their homes. (Johnson & Wales Professor Evan Villari has produced Blood and Watershed, a documentary of this historic move, the technology used in constructing the reservoir, and chronicles of family losses, including memories of those farmers who committed suicide rather than leave their land.)
Providence’s water from the Scituate Reservoir is lead free. Lead in drinking water comes from the pipes. Recent standards no longer find any level of lead acceptable, in drinking water or in blood tests. Providence Water services Providence, Cranston, Johnston, North Providence, and Smithfield. Existing lead pipes are not always a problem if undisturbed. Pipes in the way of road maintenance or other construction, however, can loosen and spike lead content, however temporarily.
Lead can cause serious health problems, including brain and kidney damage, and can interfere with your body’s ability to produce red blood cells, limiting your body’s ability to transfer oxygen. Those at greatest risk from lead exposure are infants, young children, and pregnant women.
Efforts to improve the problem can inadvertently lead to lead spikes. When lead service lines are replaced, the policy has been to leave the private line, from the street to the house, in place to be financed individually by property owners. The disruption alone can prompt an increase of lead to the house. Devra Levy, while working for the Childhood Lead Action Project, tracked lead levels in Providence and claims that in the 2010s Providence lead levels were higher than Flint’s levels. She argues that the separate consideration of public versus private service lines should have been irrelevant from the start since removing the public mains that run down every street can actually spike lead when the pipes to private homes are cut. The private pipes then are the more dangerous part of the system since water sits in them overnight or when people are out of the house. The main lines made of lead are always moving water and are then safer than the private access lines. She contends that all lead should have been removed from the start to actually solve the problem entirely. Yet costs to replace private lines average $4,500 dollars. So after the work of replacing mains, just as much work remains getting every private owner to do the same work. Adding loans helps but does not assure the job will be done thoroughly or most efficiently.
According to Providence Water, the majority of the approximately 23,000 private lead service lines within its service area are concentrated in Providence’s South Side and West End neighborhoods, a pattern that Roberta Aaronson, founder and former Executive Director of the Childhood Lead Action Project, realized in her work: “Lead is not an equal opportunity disease.” Children in disadvantaged neighborhoods continue to be disproportionately diagnosed with elevated lead levels. Even after decades of work that resulted in Rhode Island legislation licensing contractors to remove lead and holding landlords responsible for making any building built before 1978 lead safe, hundreds of children today are still being poisoned annually by lead in their environment, whether paint or water.
As a result of growing awareness, federal funding just passed this year in February, the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (EPA WIIN) dedicating two billion in grants to get the lead out of “small, underserved, and disadvantaged communities.” Providence’s South Side and West End neighborhoods fit these federally defined areas targeted for free removal of lead pipes, public and private. Providence’s share of the money is $141 million.
On June 26 2023, Governor Dan McKee signed the Lead Poisoning Prevention Act. It requires all lead lines to be replaced within ten years, and offers full financial aid to homeowners for the replacements through the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank. It also requires a lead risk assessment be conducted for any home built prior to 2011 as part of any transaction involving the property.
Providence is getting the lead out, alerting and supporting customers, finally with what appears to be sufficient funds. Homeowners and renters alike, need to ask for their share of this progress while funding is available.
Roseanne Camacho is a retired educator who has lived in Providence 57 years.
Bradly J. VanDerStad is a small business owner and Providence community advocate. He lives in the West End with his girlfriend Katie and cat Sylvia.