EPA estimates more than 54,000 lead pipes remain in Kansas

The state will get $66.1 million for water infrastructure upgrades through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law

By: - April 6, 2023 9:00 am
A piece of lead pipe removed from Jerry Land’s yard in Olathe shows a layer of lining inside the pipe that indicates the city’s water supply provided a thin film that prevented the pipe from leeching lead into the home’s water. (Carlos Moreno/KCUR)

A piece of lead pipe removed from Jerry Land’s yard in Olathe shows a layer of lining inside the pipe that indicates the city’s water supply provided a thin film that prevented the pipe from leeching lead into the home’s water. President Joe Biden's administration is prioritizing lead pipe removal more than 30 years after new ones were banned. (Carlos Moreno/KCUR).

More than 54,000 lead service pipes carry drinking water to Kansas families, according to a new estimate from the Environmental Protection Agency.

New lead water pipes have been banned for more than 30 years. But the EPA estimates that 9.2 million American households still get their water through aging lead pipes.

About 0.6% of those are in Kansas, ranking the state 26th in the country for its number of lead service lines. The EPA announced Tuesday the state would get $66.1 million to update its water infrastructure through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Over the next 20 years, the EPA estimates the U.S. will need $625 billion to update water infrastructure.

The EPA’s regional administrator, Meghan McCollister, said in a news release that the funds would go to “ensure that Kansans have access to clean drinking water.”

“Kansas’ investments through this fund will aid in securing needed resources to address critical infrastructure needs, threats to drinking water systems such as lead pipes, and emerging contaminants such as (forever chemicals).”

The funding allotment prioritized states according to need, something the Natural Resources Defense Council applauded. The environmental organization published a report last year saying the states that most needed funds to replace lead service lines were getting shortchanged.

“EPA’s changes will ensure a fairer and more equitable distribution of funding dollars to replace the nation’s millions of lead pipes,” said Cyndi Roper, one of the authors of last year’s analysis. “It’s good news for communities with the highest need that will now have access to more funding to get lead pipes out of the ground.”

The EPA banned new lead service lines — the pipes that carry water from water mains into people’s homes — in 1986 in an effort to combat lead poisoning.

Lead is a neurotoxin that, even at low levels, can harm children’s developing brains. Exposure to lead through water accounts for 20% of a child’s overall exposure, on average. For fetuses and formula-fed infants, leaded water is the No. 1 source of exposure.

President Joe Biden’s administration has pledged to remove the country’s lead service lines. But for now, little is known about where they are.

The EPA’s new estimates are projections based on a survey that water utilities filled out in 2021. But not every utility was required to fill out the survey. And some that did respond reported not knowing what their service lines are made of.

The EPA estimated Kansas has 54,107 lead service lines while the NRDC estimated in 2021 the state had more than 160,000.

Water utilities treat their water to be noncorrosive so that lead won’t leach from the service line into people’s drinking water.

But a change in the water chemistry or construction that shakes up a pipe can cause it to start leaching the toxin into drinking water.

That’s what happened in Flint, Michigan, the most prominent case of lead-contaminated water in recent years. 

But the issue isn’t unique to that high-profile situation. A pediatrician who helped uncover the Flint water crisis said it wasn’t the first, worst or last. 

Something similar happened in Trenton, Missouri, where the water utility switched chemicals used to disinfect the water and the lead levels spiked. Trenton, like many other water utilities, doesn’t know where its lead service lines are.

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Allison Kite
Allison Kite

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she’s covered state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City, and most recently was City Hall reporter for The Kansas City Star.