Lawmakers, EPA administrator meet in Grand Rapids to highlight $5.1M clean water initiative

Lawmakers and community leaders gather to watch a lead pipe be replaced at a home in Grand Rapids. The event was part of President Joe Biden’s “Investing in America” tour. | Lily Guiney

By Lily Guiney, Michigan Advance

President Joe Biden’s “Investing in America” tour took form in Grand Rapids on Wednesday morning as lawmakers and community leaders peered into a pit in front of the home of Paige Biek and her family. 

The sight in question? A lead pipe, which had for years pumped water into the Biek household, was being replaced with a copper counterpart, representing a citywide initiative that’s been ongoing since 2017. Now, a grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is helping push the project forward. 

As plumbers removed the pipe that posed a danger to the family’s clean water, Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss was joined by U.S. Rep. Hillary Scholten (D-Grand Rapids), Michigan Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids), Michigan Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) Director Aaron Keatley and EPA Administrator Michael Regan to explain the dangers of lead to safe water access in west Michigan. 

“We have over 21,000 lead service lines here in our city, with more than half of them located in our neighborhoods of focus,” Bliss said. “And our goal and our plan that we set out to accomplish back in 2017 is the full replacement of all lead service lines, and what I mean by ‘full replacement’ is all the way from the road into the homes. So this year over 2,000 lead service lines will be replaced in our city, and we’ll be replacing another 4,000.”  

The pipe replacement initiative, which is now funded in part by a Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Grant, dovetails with the Biden administration’s goal to replace lead piping across the country with safer alternatives.

Regan said that federal grants help communities like Grand Rapids identify problem pipes in their neighborhoods and provide the resources to address them. 

“President Biden and this administration have committed to removing 100% of the lead service lines as quickly as possible, so that everyone in this country can turn on their tap water, pour a glass and feel confident that it is safe to drink their water,” Regan said. “And to be sure we can uphold that commitment, we must first determine where these lead service lines exist so that we can replace them.”

Continued funding for grants like the one won by Grand Rapids was ensured through the passage of the $1 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in November 2022. Scholten said that collaboration between members of Congress and local and state officials was critical in developing the law, which has already granted billions of dollars to communities around the country to repair or replace aging infrastructure. 

“This grant funding and additional funding that we passed through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law last Congress has been instrumental in removing lead pipes and investing in sustainable infrastructure across the country, particularly in neighborhoods that have experienced historic divestment,” Scholten said.

Lead contamination of water has been part of the conversation surrounding environmental protection in Michigan since the 2014 Flint water crisis, which Regan said underscores the need to focus funds for lead pipe replacement in historically underserved communities.

“For many years, lead was the go-to material for service lines that are delivering drinking water to many of our homes, our businesses, our schools,” Regan said. “Unfortunately, too many of these pipes still remain. The science has been clear for decades – there’s absolutely no acceptable level of lead, especially not for our children. No community should ever go through what the community of Flint went through.”

Grand Rapids city employees worked alongside state officials to apply for the WIIN Grant, which Bliss said was a victory of teamwork and state leadership. She said the city’s commitment in 2017 to replacing the pipes became an asset in the grant-writing process.

“I really believe that Grand Rapids was selected because we started this work several years ago,” Bliss said. “So we had a plan in place, we had work that we were able to show we were already doing.”

Regan and Bliss both emphasized that they hope the work being done in Grand Rapids will serve as an example to other cities around the state and country to apply for federal funds and address longstanding environmental issues. 

At the state level, Keatley said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration feels similarly and plans to continue investing in water infrastructure improvements. 

“This is an issue that will take a lot of time,” Keatley said. “We anticipate that there are roughly 450,000 lead service lines in our state. All of them need to be replaced. Our citizens shouldn’t be dealing with lead issues.”

In spite of the remaining lead service lines, Bliss said the city’s water supply is passing the necessary tests for quality and safety. 

“I’m really proud that our city’s water supply meets all of our regulatory requirements, and it is considered one of the best in the country,” Bliss said. “So we put out our water quality reports every single year, and if you take the time to read those, you’ll be very impressed with the quality of our water and quite frankly, the quality of our team.”

The “Investing in America” tour, which kicked off in March with a visit by Biden to Durham, North Carolina, seeks to showcase the impact of the administration’s legislative victories on communities around the country.

Infrastructure has already been a key facet of the tour’s messaging. Vice President Kamala Harris was sent to Virginia to announce a $300 million allocation towards bridge repairs nationwide, and Senior Advisor and Infrastructure Implementation Coordinator Mitch Landrieu is set to visit Texas and New Mexico in coming weeks to discuss rural broadband initiatives.

In Grand Rapids, the tour’s purpose was exemplified– seeing the tangible impact of legislation as it’s implemented. Scholten said that the influx of federal dollars towards pipe replacement was exactly what Congress hoped to achieve with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

“It’s not all the time you see investment in your community happening literally right in front of your eyes,” Scholten said. “For far too long, the cost of replacing these lines has been borne by the city and by individuals themselves. I’m here to advocate to make sure that we have the federal resources that we need and bring our federal tax dollars right out here to West Michigan to do the work that they need to do for us.”

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: [email protected]. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.