August 3, 2021 at 5:00 am ET
As a master plumber living the epicenter of the nation’s drinking water crisis, Harold Harrington understands the urgency of replacing the nation’s 10 million or so lead service lines that carry drinking water to our homes, schools and offices.
As business manager for the United Association of Union Plumbers & Pipefitters Local Union 370 in Flint, Mich., Harrington also understands the jobs and the other economic benefits we can create if Congress would only pass legislation and funding to get the work done.
“We’ve got [workers] available,” he told NBC News in 2016 about the time he discovered that the drinking water in his own home – like millions of others nationwide – was contaminated by lead pipes. “We can start as soon as I get a call.”
Now we know just how many jobs we can create.
A new study from E2 and UA shows that replacing 100 percent of America’s lead service lines would create more than 56,000 jobs a year for at least a decade — or more than 560,000 job-years in economist parlance.
In addition to putting plumbers, pipefitters, construction workers and others on the job, the infrastructure work would also generate more than $104 billion in economic activity, including wages, taxes and other economic benefits in sectors ranging from manufacturing to restaurants and services, the study shows. States in the Midwest, which have the most lead service lines, would see the most economic benefits. Other states that would benefit the most include Texas, New York and New Jersey. But since these hazardous pipes are found nationwide, every state would benefit.
The Biden administration has called for an investment of $45 billion to replace all of the estimated 10 million or so lead service lines in America. That’s a lot of money. But as our study shows, it would generate more than double that amount in economic activity. That’s an incredible return on investment. And it doesn’t even include the even bigger health cost savings and other benefits from replacing pipes made from lead, a potent neurotoxin that damages the brains and nervous systems of children and can lead to cardiovascular, reproductive and other harmful health effects in adults.
So what’s potentially blocking this pipeline of important work to replace these dangerous lead pipes?
In the weeks ahead, Congress will consider legislation and spending measures to replace lead pipes, part of the infrastructure proposals included in the Biden administration’s Build Back Better plan. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Plan includes some funding for this critical work, but it’s shaping up to be a fraction of what is needed and what was called for in the White House’s plan.
President Joe Biden and congressional leadership need to stand firm on the $45 billion that we know is needed and not cave to others who think we can solve this important nationwide problem with piecemeal measures. If we’re going to do the job, we need to do it right.
U.S. Reps. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) and Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) have already laid out a path forward for such legislation in their AQUA Act. And more than 100 House members have signed a letter calling on congressional leadership to prioritize funding to remove all of America’s estimated 10 million lead drinking water lines.
Instead of thinking about politics, or pretending we can do this in half measures, the rest of Congress needs to think instead about the children and communities in every state that are still drinking from dangerous lead service lines — as well as the jobs and other economic benefits that come with replacing those pipes. Lawmakers need to pass legislation to fully fund the remove and replace lead pipes, and do it immediately.
America has the opportunity to solve an urgent health issue while also creating jobs and driving economic growth.
We just need our elected officials to do their jobs first to get clean drinking water — along with jobs, work and investments — flowing.
Bob Keefe is executive director of the national nonpartisan business group E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs).
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Correction: A previous version of this op-ed mistakenly identified Bob Keefe as Bob O’Keefe in the byline.