Update, July 13: At Tuesday’s meeting, City Council authorized the Department of Public Works to apply to Pennvest for a $1.9 million grant to replace lead water lines.
At City Council’s meeting Tuesday, council members will be asked to authorize Lancaster’s Department of Public Works to apply for a grant of up to $1.9 million to replace lead service lines.
Service lines are the pipes that carry water from supply mains into homes and businesses. The grant, funded with federal dollars channeled through the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority, aka Pennvest, would be used to evaluate about 300 service lines in several blocks on the city’s west side and pay for the replacement of those determined to be lead. It’s believed about 100 to 140 will fall into the latter category, Public Works Director Stephen Campbell said.
The grant application, however, is part of a bigger story: Namely, the federal government’s decision to dramatically accelerate the replacement of lead service lines nationwide and the city’s need to scale up its efforts accordingly.
Across the U.S., an estimated 10 million households and institutions receive drinking water through lead pipes. In 2021, the Biden White House announced that it would fund the replacement of all of them as part of its infrastructure plan.
Lead in even trace amounts can harm children’s nervous systems and brain development. Utilities like Lancaster’s treat their water with additives that prevents lead from leaching into it. Health experts, however, say the safest course of action is to remove the possibility of contact with lead entirely.
In many cases, the lead pipes that remain are in high-poverty neighborhoods in older cities with limited resources for replacing legacy infrastructure.
The cost of nationwide replacement is uncertain, but is estimated at $60 billion or more. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides an initial $15 billion, plus $11.7 billion in revolving funds for drinking-water infrastructure in general, including service lines.
In January, the White House announced that Pennsylvania would be one of the first states participating in its accelerated lead line replacement program, along with Connecticut, New Jersey and Wisconsin.
Lancaster has an ongoing lead service line replacement project, but it is relatively modest: Without supplemental funding, it would take more than three decades to complete replacement on its own. The federal initiative is both accelerating the required timeline and making additional money available to meet it, Campbell said.
While the acceleration is certainly welcome, it comes with some challenges, he said. For starters, municipalities nationwide are being required to compile complete inventories of their lead service lines by mid-October 2024. Lines whose material is unknown will be assumed to be lead, although if they turn out not to be, they will not have to be replaced.
Meanwhile, the state and federal agencies that regulate service line replacement have yet to get on the same page. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, reasonably enough, wants a single uniform national standard, but it has not yet provided clear direction on exactly what that entails, Campbell said.
Lancaster’s proposed replacement program is currently under review by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission. The city expects approval sometime in September, Campbell said, with the hope that any EPA concerns could then be addressed through the PUC approval.
“This is a way forward that many municipalities are taking,” Campbell told City Council at its committee meeting last week.
The deadline to apply for the $1.9 million is Aug. 3, which is why the city is going ahead before it obtains the PUC’s go-ahead for its replacement scheme. Once it does, it plans to launch a major outreach campaign in the target neighborhood to educate residents, Campbell said.
The neighborhood was chosen because it’s next on the schedule for lead line abatement, and the city’s research has given it a good idea of the scale of the lead issue there, Campbell said. The work will give it a chance to pilot its approach in anticipation of scaling up and remediating the rest of the city.
The grant will allow the city to replace service lines at no cost to property owners, Campbell said, although there may be some post-installation ancillary costs that aren’t covered, such as fully restoring landscaping.
The hope is to continue to hold property owners harmless for replacement costs, Campbell said, although that will be dependent on securing further funding down the road. Legally speaking, property owners are financially responsible for the service lines on their properties up to the curb line.
It’s unclear how many service lines will have to be replaced. As of last year, the city had identified about 550 of its service lines as lead. Of the remaining 47,500 or so, it estimated about 3,200 might be lead. However, that estimate was based on records that DEP and EPA now say does not meet their standards, Campbell said.
Almost exactly a year ago, the city applied for $9 million in pandemic relief funding to replace the 550 identified lead lines. It will find out next month if it has been approved, Campbell said.