Why We Need a Green New Deal for Lead

July 3, 2023
Sam Myszkowski

Later this week, DC Council will hold a hearing for a bill called the Green New Deal for a Lead-Free DC. Sunrise DC supports this bill and we think  it’s a great time to talk about what the Green New Deal means to us and why this bill is important. 

Electoral politics isn’t the only way to make change in our communities. That’s why we remain committed to mutual aid, to protest and disruption, and to community organizing. Sunrise DC’s members spend time supporting tenant organizing, stand in solidarity with workers, attend court watch, and raise funds for reproductive justice. But when it comes to challenges that require massive funding and an institutional level of organization to address, we work to make sure our government is doing what it needs to do and doing it the right way.

Put simply, that’s what the Green New Deal framework is about. The climate crisis is the challenge of our times. In cities like DC, we’re also struggling with many interrelated crises. Legacies of environmental and infrastructural racism have left huge parts of the city, often the homes of Black and brown residents, with fewer resources and dangers to the health and safety of those who live there. The hoarding of resources and systematic preference of governments to serve wealthy, white communities has resulted in a housing system that prioritizes people with the means to own a home or be a landlord, while pushing renters into housing insecurity and gentrification. 

These challenges are closely linked. Environmental racism has often meant locating hazardous facilities or infrastructure, such as highways and rail yards, near Black and brown communities. It has also meant consistent underinvestment in those communities, as seen when the Lane Place footbridge collapsed onto the highway that cuts Eastland Park from Deanwood. The investments that will remedy both injustices  are the same investments that must be made to build a resilient city as the climate here and throughout the world continues to worsen. New housing built to standards that meet the climate crisis and protect our health will also help to ease the upward pressure on rent that comes with being the nation’s capital and imperial center. 

It’s not enough to just make those physical investments, though. If that is all we focus on, then we risk building a beautiful, healthy city that excludes long-time residents, Black and brown families, and the working class. That’s where the Green New Deal comes in. 

Progressive presidential administrations have often branded their programs with campaign names. The 20th century is littered with them, from the imperialist Theodore Roosevelt’s “Square Deal” and segregationist Woodrow Wilson’s “New Freedom” to the better-remembered proposals from mid-century Democrats with imperfect racial liberalism such as Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” and Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society”. The Green New Deal takes these as a starting point, but in addition to the economic challenges of capitalism that progressives have tried to remedy for more than a century, it orients towards the climate crisis and towards the exclusions and failures that characterize politics dominated by white men.

More than any of these liberal-progressive ideas, the Green New Deal pushes us in the direction of a truly multiracial, inclusive, social democracy. By “social democracy” we mean a system where government is not just a stopgap for when capitalism falls short, but a democratically-controlled provider of needed services and investments when the pursuit of profit would otherwise get in the way. That is the only way we can address the climate crisis, the housing crisis, environmental and systemic racism, and the continuing struggle for worker and tenant power.

That is the vision behind the Green New Deal for a Lead-Free DC. It’s not just imperative that we remove lead pipes that are exposing pregnant people and children to disastrous toxins. We have to ensure that the replacement of lead pipes across DC is done equitably, without putting a burden on renters or people who may not have immediate access to information on the program, and takes steps towards a more inclusive city. In the existing programs to replace lead service lines, there were clear disparities: Ward 8 saw only 27% of pipes replaced and Ward 7 only 19%, but in Ward 3, nearly two-thirds (66%) of pipes were replaced. 

Since 2004 – for nearly 20 years – DC has had  a program to replace lead service lines. Maybe you’ve seen signs in people’s yards advertising this program. But for the last 15 years, this program has been an abject failure. In 2008, the DC Water board decided that DC Water would only replace the lead pipes under public property for free and only if the owner of a property pays the full cost of replacement of their private lines. This halted the progress that was made in the first years of the program as many homeowners were not able to cover those costs in full. In 2019, the DC government created the Lead Pipe Replacement Assistance Program to help foot the bill for private replacement — but only up to $2,500 when the typical cost is between double and quadruple that. As a result, in the first three years of the assistance program, fewer than 600 households received assistance despite tens of millions of dollars being put towards it. 

The Green New Deal for a Lead-Free DC makes it the responsibility of DC Water to replace the lead pipes in every home by 2030. It doesn’t just help some homeowners with replacing pipes — it helps every single property in DC. It gives tenants the power to force their landlords to take action. It even allows the Attorney General to take action against landlords who drag their feet. 

More importantly, it builds an inclusive DC by making sure DC residents get trained for the work it will require — and are trained in skills to use even after the service lines have been replaced. It makes sure that workers that get trained by DC’s Infrastructure Academy can graduate into union jobs and that residents always have a choice to use union labor when it comes to the work in their own home. 

Labor is a critical part of putting the Green New Deal into action. That means both investing in workers to make sure a city like DC doesn’t leave them behind and ensuring that workers always have the resources and protection to organize. Just like there couldn’t have been a New Deal in the 1930’s without an organized labor movement, there can’t be a Green New Deal today without organized labor. A union has the power to be an even more direct democracy than some of our elected institutions by giving a say in the workplace that comprises so much of working people’s time and energy.

A Green New Deal to replace DC’s lead service lines is just a first step towards realizing that vision. Already, there is a growing movement in DC in support of a Green New Deal for social housing – a revitalization of the District’s capacity to build housing for our communities while adapting to the climate crisis, the needs of workers, and the imperative to build an inclusive city across class and identity. Green New Deals could as easily be imagined for other challenges we face, such as the deteriorating state of public schools under an apathetic Mayor or the continuing transition from an economy based in physical production to one centered on care. 

Those are big ideas on the horizon of the future. Today, the work ahead of us is passing a Green New Deal for a Lead-Free DC and ensuring that it is funded by DC Council and implemented by the mayor. That starts with advocating for passage of the bill, but will continue by keeping our attention on this program, by organizing as tenants to demand the replacement of lead pipes in their homes and buildings, and by working through our unions to ensure that workers are trained and brought into union jobs. The social democracy that a Green New Deal brings us towards is a democracy of our collective effort, a demand on all of us to stay involved in how government affects us all. 


The Green New Deal for a Lead-Free DC will have a public hearing on Thursday, July 6th by the Committee on Transportation and Environment beginning at 9:30am. The hearing will be on Zoom, so you can give testimony remotely from your computer or phone. 

To give oral testimony at the hearing for the Green New Deal for a Lead-Free DC, email cote@dccouncil.gov with your name and intention to testify by Monday July 3rd at 5:00pm. It is possible to submit testimony in writing to the same email address through July 20th. 

For more information, please check out our partner SPACEs in Action's toolkit for testifying for the Green New Deal for a Lead-Free DC.