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Tackling Clean Water Advocacy, a Different Way: The Rise of BlueConduit

Michelle No — Journalist
Terrell Seabrooks — Former Program Associate, Innovation, The Rockefeller Foundation

In late 2019, when the pandemic first began to compel a nationwide lockdown of offices and public spaces, residents of Buffalo, NY braced for a difficult quarantine.

It was an unsettling scene replicated across the country, made worse by the addition of a toxic element specific to Buffalo: Lead. It was in their soil, their pipes, and their water, and according to Heart of the City Neighborhoods Executive Director Stephanie Simeon, it was greatly exacerbated by the mass amounts of people staying home and using tap water.

Alarmingly, it wasn’t until two years later that Simeon, and Buffalo, realized the extent of the problem.

The city had to act quickly and in 2022, became one of the first in the nation to deploy BlueConduit to locate an estimated 40,000 drinking water pipes made from toxic lead.

  • Side street that's closed off while workers replace lead pipes. (Photo courtesy of BlueConduit)

Leading Clean Water Innovation

Today, BlueConduit is at the center of lead removal sites in over 100 cities across the country, instilling haste and efficiency to an urgent issue.

Founded in 2019, BlueConduit’s AI-based approach to inventorying and replacing lead pipes has saved millions of dollars for cities looking to bring clean drinking water to their communities. And in the last three years, BlueConduit has helped inventory one million water pipes servicing two million people in the United States.

Workers replacing lead pipes. (Photo courtesy of BlueConduit)

Founded in 2019, BlueConduit’s AI-based approach to inventorying and replacing lead pipes has saved millions of dollars for cities looking to bring clean drinking water to their communities. And in the last three years, BlueConduit has helped inventory one million water pipes servicing two million people in the United States.

For its incredible efforts, The Rockefeller Foundation’s grantee BlueConduit joined over 100 organizations in January 2023 for the White House’s first ever summit dedicated to expediting lead pipe removal to ensure clean drinking water for millions across the United States. At the summit, President Biden and Vice President Harris named BlueConduit one of the leading innovators in this space, and invited them to be a part of the Biden-Harris Get the Lead Out Partnership.

The summit is a significant acknowledgment of an issue that’s continued to rise in urgency over the last couple decades. While in 1986, an amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act banned lead as a service line medium, preventing its future use in cities across the United States, it made no mention of the lead service lines already in the ground. It’s that exception that has allowed an estimated 9 million lead pipes to operate in homes, schools, and businesses since.

Tackling Clean Water Advocacy, a Different Way

For BlueConduit, eliminating those lead services lines has been a guiding priority. In high levels, lead poisoning can lead to anemia, brain damage, and a host of other health issues — and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has affirmed that there is no safe level of lead in drinking water. So how does BlueConduit’s lead-locating tool work?

First, BlueConduit’s exploratory tool takes existing information about homes (ex. when they were built, what materials were used then, etc.) and creates a ranking of how many lead service lines a neighborhood may have. BlueConduit then offers a way to organize, interpret, share, and display this information – a tool useful for utilities planning and managing their lead services line replacement programs.

Secondly, BlueConduit offers an interactive map of where lead services lines might be – allowing the public to hold officials accountable and to advocate for their access to clean water sources.

  • Worker replacing lead pipes in the ground. (Photo courtesy of BlueConduit)

While excavating was once considered the essential first step to removing lead services lines, BlueConduit has enabled a less-invasive option.

Their tool, which started as a University of Michigan research project, was initially used in Flint, and subsequently featured in numerous machine learning conferences and journals. “In fact, it was so well-received that communities elsewhere clamored for us to use the tool in their hometowns,” says co-founder Eric Schwartz.

In 2022, The Rockefeller Foundation granted BlueConduit $1 million to help scale its operation. This effort built upon The Rockefeller Foundation’s initial $200k commitment in 2020 and helped supplement philanthropic capital from Google.org and The Kresge Foundation.

Getting Resources to Low-Income Communities

Central to BlueConduit’s success is its ability to address the needs of low-income communities through an efficient tool that can work with limited data.

While it’s true that lead service lines and their harmful effects on the community are a mainstream health issue, the people they affect are a very specific minority — often low-income and often of color.

Group of workers replacing the lead pipes in the ground. (Photo courtesy of BlueConduit)

According to a 2021 report by the Environmental Policy Innovation Center (EPIC), which analyzed the distribution of the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, smaller and more racially diverse communities were less likely to receive federal funding.

“The reality is that the Flint Water Crisis didn’t happen in other neighboring communities in Michigan. It happened in Flint, and it was because this was an underserved community,” said Schwartz.

The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that black children living below the federal poverty level are four times as likely to have elevated levels of lead in their blood than poor white or Hispanic children. Their risk of poisoning increased during the pandemic as children missed lead blood level tests and exposure risk increased during periods of remote learning.

The BlueConduit Cycle of Savings

As we know today, many of those lead pipes were never replaced — and communities continue to pay the cost.

What’s more, researchers at the Chicago Federal Reserve have concluded that “federal funding for faster and more widespread lead services line replacement is expected to fall short of the total cost” meaning communities must find a way to make a dollar bill stretch a mile.

One happy domino effect of using BlueConduit’s tool, though, is that it instigates a cycle of savings and even more funding.

In 2022, Detroit was granted a cumulative $100 million from a mix of sources, including $75 million from American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds and a $5 million Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) WIIN grant. Much of that money will come in handy in not only funding the excavations and material costs but significantly enhancing the grassroots efforts that cities like Detroit initiate to educate the public.

“That’s because,” as Schwartz says, “getting to the part where people are ready to upload their data — everything from the age of home and to utility records – can be the most challenging part. And it can be a very expensive and costly campaign to get people to offer private home information.”

“There’s not a lot of trust in government services,” says Mark Riley, Toledo Department of Public Utilities Administrator. Following the Flint water crisis, a lack of public confidence in government agencies remains pervasive.

Fostering Community Buy-In

BlueConduit has been successful where other tech companies might not have been because it recognizes that mistrust and has centered their tools around transparency.

“We’re really developing the public-facing maps because we think transparency is important and actually going to generate the best long-term health outcomes for everyone, especially the folks who are most disadvantaged,” says Schwartz.

Brand new lead pipes workers are replacing in the ground. (Photo courtesy of BlueConduit)

This transparency has led to real results in Buffalo, NY, where, according to Reuters, “old housing and high poverty create the perfect conditions for one of the worst childhood lead poisoning problems in the country.”

Simeon says that BlueConduit will help them take something “very rudimentary” like an Excel spreadsheet, to a “live action” map that the community can engage with. Those real-time maps will work in conjunction with the extensive efforts Buffalo has also organized to make sure the average resident can understand — and agree to — offer essential info and agree to excavations.

There were similar results in Toledo, Ohio. Riley says that with the help of BlueConduit and $10 million in ARPA Covid-19 relief funding, they’ve been able to organize service line replacements at no cost to their customers.

Here too, BlueConduit’s public-facing maps led the city’s campaigns in getting the public to endorse and comply with excavation and replacement efforts. So much so that Riley says that even given BlueConduit’s money-saving tool, its maps were really the asset that enabled essential public buy-in and forward progress.

“We show them how to use the maps at home,” says Riley. “And the maps are outstanding. If you live on, for example, 1010 Main Street, you can pull up your address and the map will zoom right in and tell you the probability that there’s lead in your home.”

With the community’s support, Riley says they were able to identify lead service lines at a pace that they might not have been able to reach on their own.

  • Man in the community watching the workers replace the lead pipes in the ground. (Photo courtesy of BlueConduit)

What’s Next

With so much at stake, Schwartz doesn’t see BlueConduit’s job as complete simply because they’ve replaced the service lines. “You still have to monitor lead and copper and maintain communication,” he says. That’s something that their platform will allow every community to do easily.

Schwartz, who says BlueConduit is a “data science shop more than anything else,” says he has high hopes for applying their skills and interests beyond lead service lines.

Beyond its current offerings, Schwartz says they’re gearing up to launch LeadOut, a nationwide interactive map funded by The Rockefeller Foundation and Google that’ll map lead service lines around the country using machine learning. They’re also beginning to work with the city of Detroit to address lead in paint, another health hazard whose solution could use some reinventing.

And as part of the Biden-Harris Get the Lead Out Partnership, BlueConduit will now have partners in the federal government, states, tribes, local communities, water utilities, labor unions, and private companies to help them reach their goals. Together, the group is working toward the promise of replacing 100% of the nation’s lead service lines in 10 years. While the plan might seem overly ambitious if it came from any other organization, from BlueConduit, it’s cause for great hope.