Some 9.2 million lead pipes carry water to homes across the US, with more in Florida than any other state, according to a new Environmental Protection Agency survey that will dictate how billions of dollars are spent to find and repair those pipes.
The survey, released Tuesday, was the first time the agency asked about lead pipes and gave it the best count yet how many are under the earth Florida, with an estimated 1.16 million pipes, was surprising to one expert. Industrial states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania are more typically associated with extensive lead pipe issues.
Illinois was second in Tuesday’s survey, with 1.04 million lead pipes, followed by Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and New York.
The Drinking Water Infrastructure Administration’s survey will be used to fund billions of dollars in bipartisan infrastructure legislation for water infrastructure upgrades such as finding and removing lead pipes in the states most in need. Previously, the portion of the state’s lead pipe was based on general infrastructure needs, and did not take into account how many lead pipes there were in the state.
Lead can cause brain damage and the EPA says no amount is safe for children. The Biden administration has set a goal to remove all of the country’s lead water pipes. The $15 billion in lead infrastructure legislation will help significantly, but it won’t be enough to solve the problem.
“Every community deserves access to safe, clean drinking water,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan, who was in Illinois for the announcement. “Thanks to President Biden’s infrastructure investments, we have an unprecedented opportunity to revitalize America’s drinking water systems, support the Biden-Harris administration’s plan to remove 100 lead pipes across the country, and protect communities from PFAS pollution.”
EPA recently the purpose of the water borders for PFAS, or polyfluoroalkyl substances, often referred to as “forever chemicals”, the impact that the agency says will save lives and reduce disease will require many water providers to install expensive treatment systems.
An EPA survey of about 3,500 water providers found that the country needs $625 billion in drinking water infrastructure over the next two decades, an amount that has risen sharply in years. The biggest need is upgrading water pipes that are too old, broken or in some cases made of lead.
On Tuesday, the EPA also announced that states, US territories and tribes will have $6.5 billion to upgrade drinking water infrastructure, with $6 billion of that total coming from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act.
The lead water crisis in Flint, Michigan, made lead in drinking water a national concern and showed how old pipes can quickly become an urgent public health threat. Newark, New Jersey, has seen long-term problems with lead water, which led to the rapid replacement of thousands of lead pipes, as it did Benton Harbor Michigan.
Eric Olson, a health and food expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council’s environmental group, said the EPA is “trying to do the right thing” by using oversight to direct lead pipe to states that need it most. But he called Florida’s figure “a big surprise.” Olson said his state in 2021 told the group it would not track service lead lines, an estimate for the state NRDC was about 200,000.
Olson said Florida’s number is insurmountable because lead pipes were largely unbuilt in the decades before Florida’s population grew rapidly.
“We’re looking forward to hearing the explanation,” Olson said.
The EPA said responses from water providers are drawn from the public’s estimates. The The location of many lead pipes is still unknown And the EPA said Florida had a lot of water lines that were either made of an unknown material or lead.
A representative from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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