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Florida blames EPA, not inaccurate data submission, for high lead pipe estimates

Three rust colored pipes stacked together.

The data was used to distribute federal money to states to replace the pipes. An advocate thinks Florida's numbers were likely inflated. Florida's DEP says the feds' methodology is flawed.

A federal environmental official said unverified data was used to distribute money to states to replace lead pipes, and an advocate thinks Florida's numbers were likely inflated.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced last year that Florida had more lead pipes than any other state in the country with an estimated 1.16 million out of the 9.2 million nationally.

This surprised Tom Neltner, the national director for the nonprofit Unleaded Kids. He said these pipes are typically found in older homes, which are more common in the Midwest and Northeast.

"These pipes were generally installed on homes that were built before 1960. So, just an age of housing you wouldn't expect Florida to have more than Illinois, which is also over a million,” he said. "So, it was very questionable for us.”

He said a handful of utilities across Florida said they didn't know where those numbers came from.

"One of them even showed us what they gave to the state that was submitted to EPA, and it was different than what EPA database had," Neltner said.

The EPA distributed about $3 billion to states last year to replace the harmful pipes, but on May 15 the EPA’s Office of Inspector General released a report stating that two states submitted inaccurate data, which means some states got too much money while others got too little.

The two states have not been named, but Neltner said Florida is likely one of them.

Florida’s response

Brian Miller, press secretary for Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, said in an email the issue is not that Florida “submitted unverified data,” but that the EPA’s methodology for calculating the numbers is what's flawed.

He said the DEP has “asserted that the (EPA) overstated Florida’s lead service line estimates in the Seventh Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment,” and that the EPA “prematurely released estimated allotments” from the nationwide comprehensive study, as the deadline is in October 2024.

“DEP has long contended that Florida’s high-compliance rate with the Lead and Copper Rule highlighted the inconsistency of EPA’s estimations and the results from routine sampling of drinking water systems would be reporting a significant number of lead detections, which has not been the case,” Miller said.

“DEP maintains that once Florida’s drinking water surveys are completed, we expect that the actual extent of facilities with lead service lines documented in Florida will be significantly less than what was estimated by EPA.”

For example, he said less than 2% of the more than 3,600 public water systems required to be sampled for lead in Florida in the past three years had an exceedance of the Lead Action Level.

He referenced a previous lead pipe estimate of about 200,000 for Florida by the non-profit National Resources Defensive Council.

“We released a management alert prepared for the Agency to make them aware of the discrepancies we were seeing in our ongoing evaluation. State specific data was not released,” KellyJune Stout, public affairs specialist for the EPA Office of Inspector General, said in an email.

The EPA plans to release an official evaluation report with specific states’ inaccuracies in the fall, she said.

History and health

Lead pipes were installed back in the late 1800s. They’re easy to install due to their flexibility and ability to bend around rocks.

But when the water is corrosive, like high salinity and low pH, it can corrode the inside of the pipes, and then Tom Neltner said it's like drinking water through a lead straw.

He said removing lead pipes brings lead exposure down from about 10 parts per billion down to one part per billion.

“So, if you remove them, 90% reduction — that's a lot of benefit for kids’ brains and for adults' hearts. Those are the two biggest risks: dying from cardiovascular disease and loss of IQ points due to exposure to lead,” Neltner said.

My main role for WUSF is to report on climate change and the environment, while taking part in NPR’s High-Impact Climate Change Team. I’m also a participant of the Florida Climate Change Reporting Network.