A federal program aimed at replacing lead piping that poses health risks in disadvantaged communities opened to Pennsylvania and three other states in recent weeks.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is partnering with Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin to identify and replace lead piping in disadvantaged communities using federal grants and forgivable loans.
The Lead Service Line Replacement Accelerators (LSLR) initiative, as its formally called, moves the Biden administration closer to its goal to provide 100% lead-free water systems across the nation. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) provides funding for the program.
The EPA estimates up to 20% of human exposure to lead may come from drinking water. Lead and copper are rarely found in public water sources such as rivers or creeks, but rather enter tap water through community piping or home plumbing systems.
Hundreds of schools across the state have already reported elevated levels of lead in their drinking water, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. While some have taken remediation actions, others have removed water fountains and fixtures from service.
In 2022, Pennsylvania was awarded over $300 million for water infrastructure projects from Congress, out of a total $50 billion allocated for projects nationwide.
Gov. Josh Shapiro said his administration is ready to work with the president, vice president, and federal partners “to make life-saving investments that will deliver clean drinking water to families across the Commonwealth … regardless of their zip code.”
The EPA is collaborating with state partners who will work with 40 communities across those states in 2023 to address existing barriers and accelerate the identification and replacement process.
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Press Secretary Jamar Thrasher told The Center Square they have not yet selected which water systems will participate in the program. However, they intend to “target and work with small systems as they would benefit most from this special technical assistance program,” he said.
Thrasher said 89% of the state’s 1,894 community water systems are considered “small systems,” and they often lack technical, managerial, or financial capabilities. He said the federal infrastructure program targets these small and disadvantaged communities that demonstrate the greatest need.
The federal infrastructure program dedicates $15 billion for lead pipe replacement through the EPA’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund in the form of grants and loans. Forty-nine percent of this funding must be provided to disadvantaged communities as grants or principal forgiveness loans.
In addition to these low-interest loans, Congress appropriates annual funding used by the EPA to award capitalization grants to each state based on its needs. The state provides a 20% match.
According to Thrasher, PENNVEST – the agency responsible for funding sewer, storm water, and drinking water projects in the state – will also manage most of the funds for the lead replacement initiative.
Larger water systems – such as in Erie County and Pittsburgh – have adequate in-house capability to complete lead service line inventories and apply for funding without the need for technical assistance from the state or EPA, Thrasher said. They have already received funding for several LSLR projects through PENNVEST and are eligible to apply for additional federal funding as needed.
Photo credit: Seth Wenig/AP Photo