In her first visit to her hometown after becoming the Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris made sure to bring gifts for the people of Oakland, California.
Harris along with California Governor Gavin Newsom took a walking tour of the East Bay Municipal Utility District’s Upper San Leandro Water Treatment Plant in Oakland and stressed on lead-free drinking water, improvement of the water infrastructure, and the American Jobs Plan.
To create jobs, the Biden-Harris administration would provide a historic investment of more than $111 billion in the nation’s water infrastructure.
According to the Biden-Harris administration, water infrastructure improvements in the plan include $45 billion to replace 100 percent of the nation’s lead-service lines and reduce lead exposure in schools and childcare facilities; $56 billion to modernize drinking water, wastewater and stormwater systems and facilities; $10 billion to address PFAS-contamination and rural-water infrastructure sites; and funding beyond the initial $111 billion to support western-water sustainability projects including water recycling, groundwater storage and water efficiency.
Claudia Deeg, who runs the public-interest group CALPIRG’s public health and consumer campaigns in California on issues including getting lead out of drinking water and protection from price gouging, welcomed Harris’s move.
“We are really excited to see the Vice President is thinking about this issue,” Deeg told indica News. “I think the proposal is certainly the most ambitious that we have seen… It’s definitely a significant investment… an action on this scale on drinking water.”
Deeg said that more than 1,300 schools in the state had found lead in the drinking water. “It’s a big problem across the country and in California,” Deeg said. “It’s really dangerous for kids especially younger kids and so it’s a really critical issue. We see lead lines also within the older buildings, homes along school infrastructure in California.”
Asked if the funding would be sufficient to fix the water infrastructure, Deeg said: “We believe $45 billion should be enough to replace the estimated 9 million lead service lines across the country over 10 years. Replacing lead-bearing fountains and installing lead filters at schools will cost considerably less, and just $1 billion for schools would make considerable progress.
“We have all of the solutions, the biggest problem has been just it needed to be prioritized and allocate funding to actually get it done to get the lead out,” Deeg said.
Why wasn’t it taken seriously for so long?
“I think part of the issue has been that it’s not an immediate problem. When kids are exposed to lead in the water they are not going to come home and feel sick, this is something that grows up in the body over days, months and years and in long term has a very serious impact, it’s not immediate,” Deeg pointed out.
“We know now lead is a problem — it creates mental issue, behavioral issue, IQ points lost because of lead contamination, one in five case have ADHD in the country,” she said.
“This is an incredibly serious problem but people just haven’t understood how serious it is. It has taken a lot of grassroots work, a lot of people bringing up this issue with the school board, city council and state representatives to take action on this.”
Children are most susceptible to lead’s harmful effects during their first six years of life because at that age their brains are developing rapidly and their blood brain barriers aren’t yet formed.
Low-income children are most at risk to lead’s effects; 88 percent of lead-poisoned children in California receive Medi-Cal. Unlike adults, who absorb 10 percent of the lead that they ingest, children absorb as much as 50 percent of the lead they consume. Lead in water is a major source of their lead exposure; 20 percent of children’s lead absorption comes from lead in water, and infants who are fed mostly formula uptake 85 percent of their lead exposure from the water that is mixed with their formula.
During the walking tour, Harris discussed the importance of water equity and justice.
“We must understand the equities and inequities of distribution and access to clean water, especially clean drinking water, and address it in a way that is about supporting what governments must do at a local, at a state, and federal level, understanding the opportunities here. And this is a big part of the American Jobs Plan, which is the opportunity to not only build back up our infrastructure around water and water policy [but] part of our reason for being here to advance the issue of water equity, whether you’re talking about Iowa, where I spent a lot of time, and places in the Midwest where people have wells in their backyard and sewage systems on their property,” Harris said.
Such infrastructure “is eroding and they don’t have the resources to actually upgrade and make it safe,” she underlined.
“And so part of our policy is to say give grants, give support to homeowners, to be able to upgrade their systems because, of course, this is a public health issue,” Harris said. “We are looking at it in terms of places like Flint, the Mississippi Delta.”
Harris also spoke about the need for more union jobs, for lead pipes to be replaced to stop water contamination, and the health effects of lead in water.