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Replacing Lead Pipes in Philadelphia for Cleaner Drinking Water
Article

Replacing Lead Pipes in Philadelphia for Cleaner Drinking Water

This grant provides funding for a project to replace lead pipes in Philadelphia to make drinking water cleaner and safer.

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A scenic view of Philadelphia is seen ahead of a Philadelphia Flyers game on January 11, 2023. (Getty/Bruce Bennet)
Snapshot
  • Project name: Replacing Lead Pipes in Philadelphia for Cleaner Drinking Water

  • Program: Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act

  • Law: Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act

  • Recipient: City of Philadelphia (via Commonwealth of Pennsylvania)

  • Investment amount: $160,000,000

  • City: Philadelphia

  • State: Pennsylvania

  • Congressional districts: 2, 3, and 5

  • Construction start date: Ongoing

  • Jobs created: Undetermined

This profile is part of a project that finds and tracks the public and private sector investments generated or supported by three of the Biden administration’s economic laws. These laws make investments in the American people, helping to grow the middle class, lowering the cost of living, and setting up America to better compete and cooperate in the world. Pulling directly from several sources, this catalog provides users with publicly available information such as the number of jobs created, workforce training partnerships, and storytellers benefiting from particular projects, among other detailed information. The profile below expands on the economic, practical, and climate impacts of just one of the 35,000 investments that can be found in the Biden Administration Investment Tracker. It may be updated to account for future project developments.

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Approximately $160 million from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the bipartisan infrastructure law, will go toward replacing 19 miles of lead pipes and upgrading water facilities in Philadelphia. Lead contamination in drinking water disproportionately harms vulnerable populations, especially children of color and those from low-income families, as lead is more common in older schools and homes, where those populations tend to live.

Historical context

  • Problems with lead in drinking water have received greater attention since the 2014 Flint, Michigan, discovery that drinking water was contaminated. – PennPIRG, June 21, 2022

Contaminated drinking water disproportionately harms vulnerable populations, especially children of color and those from low-income families, who are exposed in Philadelphia schools:

  • A 2022 study found lead in the water lines in 61 percent of the outlets tested in Philadelphia schools, “potentially exposing tens of thousands of students to toxins proven to cause learning and behavioral issues as well as health problems including damage to internal organs.” – The Guardian, February 18, 2022
  • “‘Children, especially those in the pre-K to seven-year-old age range, and particularly children of color and those from low-wealth communities, are among those most vulnerable to environmental toxins and exposures of all kinds,’ said Jerry Roseman, director of environmental science and occupational safety and health for the Philadelphia federation of teachers.” – The Guardian, February 18, 2022
  • The Philadelphia School District is using funding from the American Rescue Plan to address drinking water in schools. – PennPIRG, June 21, 2022

Lead pipes are a long-standing problem in Philadelphia, especially when privately owned:

  • “The city uses chemical treatments to coat the lining of lead service pipes, and the water delivered to customers does not contain lead. However, there’s a possibility that some of the coating could become damaged or ineffective, causing lead to enter the water. That is more likely to occur when the water passing through the lead service line is warmer.” – WHYY, February 4, 2023
  • “In Philadelphia, customers are responsible for maintaining plumbing, which presents a challenge when it comes to replacing lead pipes owned by private or non-city properties. However, the city has been working to replace lead pipes as much as possible. Since 2017, the city has replaced more than 2,600 lead services. The city estimates about 20,000 parcels in Philadelphia have a lead service line.” – WHYY, February 4, 2023

There is a lack of agreement over “safe” levels of lead:

  • “‘The science on lead is settled – there is no safe level of exposure and it is time to remove this risk to support thriving people and vibrant communities,’ the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, Michael S Regan, said.” – The Guardian, February 18, 2022
  • “But critics noted there was no plan to reduce the existing ‘acceptable’ level of lead in water from a Donald Trump-era rule of 15ppb.” – The Guardian, February 18, 2022

Older homes are more likely to have lead pipes that can contaminate drinking water, creating permanent, generational harm to children and families:

  • “Philadelphia’s aging housing stock and deep poverty contribute to thousands of children being harmed each year by lead. Generation after generation of children in the same neighborhoods suffer permanent damage from this unseen menace.” – The Philadelphia Inquirer, last accessed March 2023
  • Map of toxic lead risk, broken down by census tract, including 705 homes where the “city took property owners to Lead Court after a child has been poisoned and the property failed two inspections.” – The Philadelphia Inquirer, last accessed June 2023

Philadelphia has the highest poverty rate per capita of any of the 10 largest cities in the country:

  • This high rate is in part due to a history of structural racism and racial residential segregation through redlining, a practice that creates racial segregation, and more recent practices of “reverse redlining” whereby consumers in those neighborhoods are charged higher interest rates. Those neighborhoods are currently “the most disadvantaged communities in the city.” – Office of the Controller, Philadelphia, January 23, 2020
  • Professor Amy Hillier, University of Pennsylvania: “Systemic disinvestment between the federal government, private sector and individual citizens caused long-term damage, in particular to urban neighborhoods of color.” – WHYY, December 10, 2017

Project summary 

$500 million worth of assistance, including a $160 million grant from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Acts, was announced to go toward replacing lead pipes, updating water lines, and upgrading facilities in Philadelphia:

  • “The City of Philadelphia is slated to receive $160 million from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s first of five years of Bipartisan Infrastructure Law water funding: to help upgrade water facilities and replace over 19 miles of water mains, and the lead service lines and connections along those mains.” – The White House, February 2, 2023
  • During the project to replace water mains owned and maintained by the City of Philadelphia, the city “will also replace any customer lead service lines found,” which are privately owned and maintained. – WHYY, February 4, 2023
  • $160 million will be distributed through the state’s PENNVEST infrastructure financing program. – Philadelphia Water Department, February 4, 2023
    • “Of that $160 million, approximately $125 million will help upgrade facilities at the Baxter Drinking Water Treatment Plant, which supplies water to about 60 percent of the city’s 1.6 million residents.” – Philadelphia Water Department, February 4, 2023
    • “The remaining $35 million will finance projects to replace over 19 miles of water mains, and the lead service lines and connections along those mains.” – Philadelphia Water Department, February 4, 2023
  • A $340 million Water Infrastructure and Innovation Act (WIFIA) loan from EPA for the City of Philadelphia to upgrade its water system, including the first $19 million in financing that will help modernize critical infrastructure by replacing approximately 160 lead service lines and 13 miles of watermains.” – The White House, February 2, 2023
  • The “Get the Lead Out Partnership [is] comprised of over 100 state and local officials, water utilities, labor unions, and other nongovernmental organizations who have committed to advance and accelerate lead pipe replacement, including the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.” – The White House, February 2, 2023

The project is part of broader administration actions to address lead, including:

  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidance to identify lead pipes by “developing and maintaining service line inventories, support notifications to consumers served by lead pipes, and provide states with information on oversight and reporting to EPA.” – The White House, February 2, 2023
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has updated the levels of lead in blood to help children receive early intervention. – The White House, February 2, 2023
  • “EPA has taken several steps in the process of proposing the Lead and Copper Rule Improvements (LCRI).” – The White House, February 2, 2023
  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development is implementing its Lead Safe Housing Rule to eliminate or mitigate lead paint. – The White House, February 2, 2023

A partial list of neighborhoods where these projects will take place include:

  • Hunting Park, North Philadelphia
  • Rhawnhurst: Benton-Solly area and Loney-Horrocks area
  • Kingsessing, West Philadelphia
  • Olney, North Philadelphia – Philadelphia Water Department, February 4, 2023

Outcomes, improvements, and practical impact

  • “Biden has promised to replace every lead service line in the United States over the next decade. Lead is a neurotoxin and exposure can cause brain and kidney damage, especially among children.” – WHYY, February 4, 2023
  • “By financing this first project with a WIFIA loan, the EPA estimates the City of Philadelphia will save approximately $4 million. Construction and operation under this first loan are estimated to create approximately 100 jobs.” – U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), February 2, 2023

Climate impact 

  • Clean water is part of the Justice 40 Initiative. – The White House, last accessed March 2023

Climate resiliency:

  • Charles Haas, a Drexel University professor of environmental engineering, notes that about one-third of the city’s water supply comes from the Schuylkill River and the rest from the Delaware River. “‘It’s an old system,’ Haas said, ‘and large, old systems in the U.S. are challenged,’ Haas said. ‘Climate change is going to have an inexorable pressure both on drinking water and our wastewater.’” – CBS Philadelphia, February 3, 2023

Racial equity and justice impact

Previously, cities forced homeowners to pay in full or in part for replacing lead pipes. However, in low-income neighborhoods, many families could not afford it:

  • “‘Because of historic redlining and segregation these tend to be African-American communities. We see both racial and economic discrimination. If you don’t pay up, you are at increased risk of lead exposure that threatens your heart and your kids’ brains. That’s a big deal,’ said Tom Neltner of The Environmental Defense Fund.” – The Rockefeller Foundation, 2021
  • “According to the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, ‘there are hundreds of thousands of residential lead pipes still in use in Pennsylvania, especially in older neighborhoods where persons of color, seniors, or economically disadvantaged citizens often reside.’” – The Keystone, March 27, 2023
  • “Since in many areas lead service lines are more likely to exist in environmental justice communities, and since Black and Latino children have disproportionately high overall lead exposure, replacing these lead pipes will also greatly benefit low-income and minority households.” – E2, August 3, 2021
  • Tom Neltner, senior director, safer chemicals at the Environmental Defense Fund: “Legacies of disinvestment have left some communities facing greater health risk from lead.” – WHYY, February 4, 2024
  • There were fears that “[e]conomically deprived areas and those with high populations of racial minorities would be overlooked.” – The Guardian, February 18, 2022

Economic impact

  • “Both the Biden administration and city council add the multi-million dollar investment will also lead to new jobs in the area.” – CBS Philadelphia, February 3, 2023
    • “The massive investments in water improvements will also create new good paying jobs, including jobs that do not require a college degree.” – The White House, February 2, 2023

Nationwide economic benefits, based on 2021 predictions:

  • “Based on the Biden administration’s plans to invest $45 billion to replace 100 percent of lead service lines in America, the findings from Getting the Lead Out: Employment & Economic Impacts from Replacing America’s Lead Service Lines, this report from E2 and the United Association of Union Plumbers & Pipefitters (UA) estimates that the $45 billion invested in this program will create and support 56,080 jobs annually for 10 years, or a total of 560,800 job-years. This annual estimate includes 26,900 direct jobs—construction workers, plumbers, pipefitters, heavy equipment operators—as a direct result of this activity. Another 13,600 jobs that last for 10 years are created throughout the value chain, and 13,800 jobs are created each year for 10 years as a result of workers spending their paycheck.” – E2, August 3, 2021
  • “About 84 percent of all jobs created through this investment are in construction (52 percent), professional and business services (24 percent), and manufacturing industries (8 percent). Insofar as the bulk of these jobs involve high-skill construction occupations, the jobs created will provide good wages and training opportunities for local residents and promote economic benefits to affected communities.” – E2, August 3, 2021
  • “This investment into cleaning up our nation’s water supply also would generate $38.3 billion in labor income, $11.7 billion in taxes, and $53.9 billion in additional value to the economy. This would represent a 120 percent return on investment.” – E2, August 3, 2021
  • “Increased positive health outcomes would be generated. It has been estimated that an additional $22,000 of societal benefits are generated for every lead pipe replaced as a result of lower cardiovascular disease.” – E2, August 3, 2021

Official supporting statements 

  • President Joe Biden: “The issue has to do with basic dignity. Every American deserves to turn on their water tap or faucet and drink clean water. We’re the richest, most prosperous nation in the world — water ought to be something that’s guaranteed. But unfortunately that’s not the case.” – WHYY, February 4, 2023
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael S. Regan: “EPA is committed to partnering with states and communities to protect children and families and ensure our nation’s drinking water pipes are lead-free. Our Lead Service Line Replacement Accelerators demonstrate our commitment to ensuring every community has access to safe, clean drinking water. By leveraging the historic investment made possible by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we are moving one step closer to achieving President Biden’s vision of 100% lead-free water systems for all.” – U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, January 27, 2023
  • Rob Ballenger, director of the energy unit at Community Legal Services: “This to me is hopefully a signal that the time has come for our country to recognize and address that federal funding for our water and wastewater systems is absolutely required for them to remain sustainable and environmentally sound, not just for the residents who rely upon them, but to our habitat more generally. The cost of doing this kind of work cannot ultimately be borne by customers through rates and charges over the long term … So, my hope is that this is the beginning of a sustained pattern of federal funding to improve our water and wastewater infrastructure.” – WHYY, February 4, 2023
  • Tom Neltner, senior director, safer chemicals, Environmental Defense Fund: “Everyone deserves access to safe drinking water that doesn’t come from a lead pipe, but legacies of disinvestment have left some communities facing greater health risk from lead. … With everything we know about the dangers of lead exposure, today’s announcement, on the heels of the Administration’s commitment to supporting full replacement of all lead pipes within 10 years, is an important step toward ensuring healthy communities for generations to come.” – WHYY, February 4, 2023
  • U.S. Sen. Bob Casey: “When we’re lucky, we never have to worry about the quality of our water. Children and families in Philadelphia get their drinking water through lead pipes—not because they choose to, but because the City of Philadelphia has not been able to replace these outdated and dangerous pipes. Thanks to the Biden-Harris Administration, that will no longer be the case.” – U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, February 3, 2023
  • U.S. Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA): “This is a huge, game-changing investment in the city of Philadelphia’s water infrastructure. … It’ll guarantee that communities across the city can upgrade from lead pipes and provide safe drinking water for all. This is just another example of the President and Democrats in the Senate getting things done for the people of Pennsylvania, and we’re going to keep making these kinds of investments in communities that have been left behind.” – U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, February 3, 2023
  • Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro (D): “My Administration is ready to work with President Biden, Vice President Harris, and our federal partners to make life-saving investments that will deliver clean drinking to families across the Commonwealth, especially in communities that have been left behind for too long. Working with our federal partners, we can rebuild our infrastructure, create good-paying jobs, and guarantee that constitutional right holds for all Pennsylvania, regardless of their zip code.” – U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, January 27, 2023
  • Philadelphia Water Department Commissioner Randy E. Hayman: “This commitment will provide an immense boost to Philadelphia’s ongoing efforts to ramp up water main replacement and help sustain our recently launched 25-year, multibillion-dollar Water Revitalization Plan, investments that will result in direct health and safety benefits for all Philadelphians. … Replacing miles of water mains in these neighborhoods will also strengthen our campaign to replace customers’ lead service lines as we renew and improve the City’s infrastructure. This represents the biggest investment in drinking water infrastructure in a generation, and we would not be able to do this work without this level of federal investment.” – Philadelphia Water Department, February 4, 2023

Selected clips 

  • “Biden unveiled $500 million for Philly water upgrades” – The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 3, 2023
  • “What Pennsylvania Has Gotten Out Of Biden’s Infrastructure Law (So Far)” – The Keystone, March 27, 2023

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.

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