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Pennsylvania and Wisconsin offer lessons for how states can remove lead service lines and protect community health by maximizing the unprecedented investment in safe drinking water provided by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
Lead exposure in any amount can have drastic consequences for health and overall well-being. When experienced during early childhood, these effects can be particularly dire, with long-lasting damage to the brain and nervous system. This can lead to delayed growth and development; increased risk for learning disabilities and behavioral challenges; and hearing and speech impairments. When present, lead service lines (LSLs) are the most significant source of lead in drinking water, and yet an estimated 9.2 million LSLs remain across the country, affecting nearly 22 million people in total—disproportionately people of color and those from low-income households.
Through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the Biden administration has made the largest investment in clean drinking water in the nation’s history, including important steps toward retrofitting and updating drinking water infrastructure across the United States. The IIJA’s $50 billion safe drinking water package includes $15 billion in grants and loans to identify and replace lead service lines (LSLs) and an additional $11.7 billion to finance any drinking water infrastructure priority, including LSL identification and replacement. The package also creates a Lead Service Replacement Accelerators program, a partnership between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Labor, to provide water technical assistance across select states. Importantly, these federal investments fall under the Biden administration’s Justice40 Initiative, which aims to deliver at least 40 percent of benefits from climate and infrastructure initiatives to disadvantaged communities, including low-income communities and communities of color, to mitigate the historic health and environmental inequities that still plague millions of marginalized people.
In late November of 2023, the Biden administration proposed improvements to the Lead and Copper Rule, which would require utilities to remove and replace all lead pipes across the country within 10 years and increase other protections to reduce exposure, such as improved tap sampling and enhanced public communication around lead health risks. IIJA investments will be essential in bolstering states and communities’ ability to expedite LSL work to meet this timeline and other public health protections laid out in the rule.
IIJA investments have already provided significant assistance to states and communities implementing LSL replacement projects to improve public health and safety in communities across the country. The authors of this summary and accompanying report explored examples from Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in order to highlight lessons and recommendations for other states updating water system infrastructure and replacing LSLs.
1. Use the best available data to document the LSL landscape and track replacement progress and impact
Although the federal government banned new lead pipes in 1986, the EPA did not require water utilities to inventory them or systematically replace them until recently. States and communities may face considerable barriers in identifying where remaining lead pipes exist. Under the 2021 Lead and Copper Pipe Rule, water systems are required to provide initial inventories of their LSLs by October 16, 2024. Proposed improvements to the rule will require water systems to regularly update and validate their inventories, create an LSL replacement plan, and identify the materials of service lines of unknown material.
- Devote funding to creating an inventory of remaining LSLs to prioritize resources and replacement projects to communities and neighborhoods with the greatest need.
- Use inventories to help inform communities of their risks via public and easy-to-understand educational materials.
- The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA), used a combination of historical property records, construction records, and ongoing curb box inspections to build a comprehensive map to track LSL locations and replacement projects. The utility has posted a publicly available map that is searchable by address, allowing individuals to assess their risk and conduct replacements.
2. Prioritize equity and environmental justice in LSL replacement strategies by targeting funds to communities disproportionately exposed to lead in their drinking water
LSL remediation efforts must prioritize populations that are most exposed to lead. Given the legacy of structural racism and segregation in America, this largely means prioritizing vulnerable low-income communities and communities of color.
- State prioritization frameworks and LSL selection criteria should center equity in order to prioritize vulnerable communities most at risk for harmful consequences of lead exposure and communities that may be experiencing multiple sources of lead exposure.
- Prioritization plans should consider racial demographics, socioeconomic and geographic conditions, public health information such as areas with elevated blood lead levels (BLLs) in children, the concentration of LSLs in a given area, and the prevalence of young children and people of child-bearing age.
- States should consider using the Biden administration’s Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool to target LSL replacement funding to disadvantaged communities. The tool identifies disadvantaged census tracts in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories using data on socioeconomic, environmental, climate, and other burdens.
- Water utilities should provide consumers with information on LSL replacement projects in multiple languages and at a sixth-grade reading level, along with opportunities to comment and provide input, as they implement projects.
- Wisconsin’s equity prioritization plan considers instances of elevated BLLs in children, the concentration of LSLs in a given area, and the relative socioeconomic conditions of various neighborhoods.
- PWSA prioritizes LSL replacement projects according to risk and equity, using public health and demographic data to consider neighborhood factors such as median income, people of child-bearing age, BLL data, and environmental justice mapping.
3. Replace entire LSLs—not just the portion owned by the local drinking water authority—to minimize harm and eliminate lead exposure
Full LSL replacements are essential to protecting community health. States and communities should implement protocols and supports to fully replace LSLs, including the portions on private property. While states must commit to full LSL replacements in order to access IIJA funding, lessons from Wisconsin and Pennsylvania highlight legal and financial barriers many states will need to address to complete LSL replacements at scale.
- Use IIJA investments or other funding streams to fully cover the cost of LSL replacements. Requiring property owners to bear any part of the costs of an LSL replacement presents a barrier, particularly for low-income homeowners, to efficiently conducting full LSL replacements.
- Adjust local laws and regulations that limit water systems’ ability to conduct LSL replacements on private property. State and local laws and water tariff agreements vary widely, and water systems often need permission from the property owner to conduct full LSL replacement work. These limitations may undermine efforts to complete widespread and efficient replacements.
- Ensure full replacements include additional plumbing fixtures, such as faucets and fountains, particularly in schools and child care facilities where young children spend significant portions of their time and are at risk of exposure.
- While PWSA began its LSL replacement program in 2016, a clarifying state law, passed in 2017, allowed local governments—as a matter of public health—to tap into public funding sources to cover the cost of sewer and waterline repairs on private portions of service lines. The city fully replaces LSLs at no cost to the customer. Funding from the IIJA has been essential to allow the city to realistically meet its goal of replacing all LSLs by 2026 without increasing water and sewer costs to its residents.
- A change in city ordinance, led by Milwaukee Water Works with alders at city hall, now allows Milwaukee to use IIJA dollars to fully cover the public- and private-side replacement costs for owners of properties with one to four dwelling units and for other situations in which a replacement project is required and planned. The city will also cover the full cost of replacement for child care facilities.
4. Seek community input, invest in meaningful community engagement, and build community trust in state leaders and utility service providers to gain support and overcome potential obstacles for LSL replacement
Community buy-in and input are critical to success, and states looking to carry out LSL replacement work must invest resources into educating, training, partnering with, and building trust in affected communities.
- Invest time and resources into gathering input from the community and interacting directly with residents to share information on the risks of lead exposure, lead level testing, and LSL replacement work. This may include community advisory groups or field liaisons.
- State leadership should conduct outreach to communities that could benefit from IIJA investments and provide resources, technical support, and guidance to water systems and communities for developing and financing LSL replacement work.
- Because some communities have faced workforce shortages that have impeded timely LSL replacements, states should invest in growing and sustaining the workforce that is essential to LSL replacement work—including contractors and plumbers—such as through apprenticeship programs.
- PWSA’s Community Lead Response Advisory Group seeks vital community input and feedback to best serve customers. A group of field liaisons have been essential to working directly with residents to build trust and educate them on the risks of lead exposure and LSL replacement work.
- Broader outreach efforts from the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority (PENNVEST) in the form of town halls and virtual lunch and learns have helped broaden the impact of IIJA dollars by encouraging and helping communities across the state to apply for and benefit from available funding.
- PENNVEST’s free technical support pilot program pairs communities with a consulting engineer to help them develop their LSL replacement projects and apply for project funding, ensuring that they are construction-ready when they do so.
5. Offer effective shorter-term solutions to protect communities from ongoing lead exposures as they wait for LSL replacements and offer support for accessing treatment
With millions of LSLs still in use around the country, the significant cost associated with removal, and the serious harm inflicted on those exposed, every effort must be made to protect communities from lead exposure and treat those who have already been exposed.
- Make certified lead water filters and tap sampling accessible to customers who are waiting on LSL replacement work.
- Publish and distribute LSL inventories and education materials to allow individuals to assess whether they are affected by an LSL and understand their risks and to seek treatment in cases where they have already been exposed.
- Promote accessible and affordable blood lead testing in places that children frequent, including schools, child care facilities, and physician offices, particularly in high-risk areas with LSLs.
- PWSA makes free lead test kits available through its website to all its customers who would like to test lead levels in their home drinking water; provides public education and community outreach on the health risks of lead exposure; and shares information on obtaining discounts on water pitchers that are certified for lead removal.
- With funds from the IIJA, Milwaukee now covers water filters prior to LSL replacements and provides voluntary water testing before and after the replacement.
Investments provided through the IIJA represent a historic opportunity to update and replace aging water infrastructure that poses a considerable health risk and environmental injustice for millions of Americans. Lessons from Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are important for other states to consider as they work to replace LSLs and protect community health.