Why Buffalo officials say the city’s lead pipe removal project will take decades to complete
The city projects it will cost up to $500 million to replace all lead pipes.
Over half of Buffalo's water service lines are estimated to contain lead, but city officials say the work to replace them could last over the next two decades and cost nearly half a billion dollars to complete.
Nearly 40,000 water service lines in Buffalo, over half of the more than 68,000 total water service lines in the city, are projected to contain lead, the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, said in a report released last year.
Oluwole "OJ" McFoy, the chairman of the Buffalo Water Board, tells ABC News only 1,700 lines have been replaced so far. McFoy estimates the project could last over the next 20 years and could cost $400 to 500 million.
Buffalo officials last year announced a $10 million federal investment, part of the American Rescue plan, to contribute to accelerating lead pipe replacements and water infrastructure issues in Buffalo.
McFoy told ABC News he believes with that funding they can expect to replace roughly 1,000 more service lines.
The city is also planning to request additional grant funding through the state of New York for an estimated $10 million. McFoy says he "will continue to push forward" with seeking grants to help cover the massive infrastructure project.
"People really look at it from a time standpoint; but we look at it from a public health standpoint, and it starts actually at the treatment facility," McFoy said.
Following the massacre at the Tops supermarket in Buffalo’s east side on May 14, 2022, at least $1.1 billion in state and federal funds have been designated towards the east side for improvements.
This includes at least $50 million in New York state funding to fight food insecurity and support small businesses, job training programs and assist first-time homeowners and east side homeowners facing foreclosure.
McFoy said the service lines are only part of the problem. The issue also extends inside the properties affected.
While water lines to homes in Buffalo could be either public or private lines, each property owner is responsible for the lines on their property, McFoy explained.
However, McFoy says depending on the amount of lead detected in water pipes, the city may replace some customers' service lines free of charge.
McFoy said it's important to make sure property owners are aware of the need to test their lines.
"One of the things that we continue to promote is sampling. We want to make sure we get you in the sampling protocol, so that we know exactly what the levels are," he said.
He added, "We've established a level that is well below the EPA for action. Our action limit is at 5 parts per 1 billion. So in 5 parts per 1 billion, we're replacing lead to service lines free of charge to those community members."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is no safe level of lead in the human body. In children, low levels of exposure were linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells, the CDC says.
Housing nonprofit Heart of the City Neighborhoods says it is working alongside other local teams to locate the impacted lines. Blue Conduit, an analytics company using data science and machine learning to find and help to remove lead pipes from the nation's water infrastructure systems, including in cities like Flint, Michigan, has also been involved in the ongoing work in Buffalo, company representatives said.
According to some engineering experts like Marc Edwards, a professor of engineering at Virginia Tech who helped reveal the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, industrial cities with homes constructed before the 1980's are often at higher risks for lead paint and lead service lines -- in part because lead pipes were legal up until the Safe Drinking Water Act was amended that decade.
"It really wasn't until the 1980's when folks started requiring the water companies to treat the water in a way to minimize the contaminated water through a process," he said.
Buffalo has the oldest housing stock among major cities in the country, according to the 2019 US Census. Nearly 64% of Buffalo homes were built prior to 1940, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey.
An interactive map created by ABC News explores aging homes and the high risks of lead pipes.
Stephanie Simeon, a Buffalo resident and the executive director of Heart of the City Neighborhoods, believes that money should be invested into fixing the health and employment issues affecting thousands of Buffalo residents.
"There's been a plethora of resources, the real story is how have those resources come to the hands and stayed local," Simeon said.
McFoy said city officials have been meeting with public unions and other “internal vendors” to ensure they’re setting up programs for workforce development amid the reinvestment project.
"A city like Buffalo that has over a 30% poverty rate, we find it very difficult to get things done," McFoy explained. "That's why we're championing programs to ensure we can get funding from the outside coming into the communities like Buffalo."