Dean Barber

Get the Lead Out: Communities Competing in a 21st Century

In Corporate Site Selection and Economic Development on February 29, 2016 at 8:54 am

My travels in business and pleasure have taken me all over this great country, and I would venture to guess that I have drunk tap water in hundreds of towns and cities.

In doing so, I have probably ingested brain-damaging lead, which may be the reason why I am a consultant today. I do stare at blank walls for lengthy periods of time.

But seriously, lead is a neurotoxin that poses a real threat to public health, and unsafe levels of lead have turned up in tap water in city after city. They include Jackson, Miss., where authorities last week warned that pregnant women and young children should not drink unfiltered tap water.

The Romans noted the effects of lead poisoning — loss of appetite, vomiting, convulsions, brain damage — among slaves who manufactured and laid the empire’s water pipes 2,000 years ago.

Now you might think we would have learned something. But the fact remains that lead pipes were widely used during the last century to deliver water and much of that old pipe remains in the ground today in communities across America.

Beyond Public Health

But this goes beyond even public health. As I have written in past blogs, the physical condition of our basic infrastructure — roads, bridges, schools, water lines and water treatment plants — greatly influences the ability of a local economy to grow.

In my consulting role to companies on corporate site selection, and to economic development organizations on business competitiveness, we invariably take a hard look at whether existing infrastructure meets the needs of the citizenry and the business community.

In short, if a community invests in itself, in terms of human capital (education and workforce training) and infrastructure, well, we like that. We like that a lot.

And if it becomes apparent that a community is not investing in itself, essentially not trying to compete in the 21st century, well, we don’t like that.

So this is about economic viability for communities in the 21st century. It just is.

A 30-Year Low

A report last week by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities warns that state and local spending on infrastructure is now at a 30-year low.

Total capital spending as a share of state GDP fell in all but five states and the District of Columbia between 2002 and 2013, with the largest drops in Nevada, Florida and Michigan. I quote from the report:

“Commerce requires well-maintained roads, railroads, airports, and ports so that manufacturers can obtain raw materials and parts, and deliver finished products to consumers.  Growing communities rely on well-functioning water and sewer systems.

“State-of-the art schools free from crowding and safety hazards improve educational opportunities for future workers.  Every state needs infrastructure improvements that have potential to pay off economically in private sector investment and job growth.”

I don’t care what your politics are. Makes no difference to me. But the truth is that we have inadequate and deficient infrastructure all across this country. I cannot help but believe that if we’re going to remain a competitive economic force as nation, we have to invest in ourselves.

Tip of the Iceberg

Flint, Mich., has rightly drawn national news media attention because of lead levels in the water approaching that of toxic waste. But Flint may be the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

During a cursory internet search, I found quite a few news stories about suspected lead contamination in public water supplies in a host of places.

The Environmental Protection Agency, charged with protecting the nation’s drinking water, estimates there are 10 million lead “service lines” linking water mains in streets to buildings, while the American Water Works Association, representing about 4,000 water utilities, places the number at 6.5 million.

The trade group estimates the average cost for each replacement line at about $5,000, for a total of $32.5 billion. Congress banned lead water pipes 30 years ago.

“The only way we can solve this is by testing more aggressively and starting to replace these lead pipes,” Jeffrey Griffiths, a Tufts University researcher, told theChicago Tribune.

Most cities add corrosion-fighting chemicals to the water supply that form a protective coating inside pipes. Flint stopped the treatment in an ill-advised attempt to cut costs.

Research shows the anti-corrosion treatment also can be thwarted when street work, plumbing repairs or changes in water chemistry disrupts the coating, causing lead to leach from service lines.

Locating the Problem

Identifying and locating lead service lines can be a huge challenge for many communities as records are often largely inadequate.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that University of Michigan Prof. Martin Kaufman deployed students and volunteer residents to review maps and 45,000 index cards from the 1950s on service-line information in Flint.

Finding much of the data missing, the group turned to 240 digital maps that Flint created in a 1984 survey to arrive at the estimated 8,000 or so lead service lines, down by about half from earlier estimates.

GM Had Options; Most Do Not

Soon after Flint made its ill-fated switch in 2014 to Flint River water from the costlier Detroit municipal system, officials at GM’s engine plant soon discovered that Flint water was rusting their engine blocks. Not good.

This is an example of infrastructure not meeting the needs of a major employer. But unlike residents and most businesses of Flint, GM was able in December 2014 to switch from the tainted water system to that of a neighboring township.

Now think about this for a moment. If we were engaged by a company to find optimal locations for a future manufacturing plant, and we learned that a major employer had switched water sources because of corrosion, don’t you know that would raise red flags.

Inadequate, deficient, unsafe infrastructure is always a mark against a community. In the world of business as in life, needs have to be met. If they are not, in terms of a corporate site search, we move on to other places.

Serious Needs

According to the 2013 report card by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the U.S. has serious infrastructure needs of more than $3.4 trillion through 2020, including $1.7 trillion for roads, bridges and transit; $736 billion for electricity and power grids; $391 billion for schools; $134 billion for airports; and $131 billion for waterways and related projects.

There is a growing debate and likely political battles on the horizon in many states right now regarding raising gasoline taxes to pay for road and bridge improvements.

Again, a cursory internet search shows the question being raised in Mississippi, Alabama, Maine, New Jersey, Delaware, Missouri, Indiana, Virginia, Colorado, Alaska and Wisconsin. (I have probably left off some.)

Nobody likes tax increases, that’s for sure. But with crumbling infrastructure and the need for our state and local economies to grow, this money is going to have to come from somewhere.

At some point, we’re going to do what we have to do.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a location advisory and economic development consulting firm based in Dallas. He can be reached at or at 972-890-3733.

  1. Good blog this morning Dean. I hope that all is well with you.
    Take care,

    Charles L. Smith, CEcD
    Executive Director
    Main Line: 903-572-6602

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