Allentown has a lead problem
But it’s more complicated than you think.
By Maddie Davidson
The aching, whining pipes, settled underground decades ago, are resting not-so-peacefully beneath our sidewalks, our basements and our playgrounds. They are burdened by age. The years since Allentown legally sourced their pipes from lead, a once popular building material, reports and mandates about its toxicity have surfaced which has restricted any commercial use. Scientists and politicians of the mid 20th century, however, identified the most pressing lead concern above ground.
The year 1978 marked a national ban on lead paint, the contaminant easiest for young children to ingest. This was followed by a revised rule in 1992 promising the systematic implementation of “trained workforce to assist in the elimination of hazards associated with lead-based paint.” Allentown, a city both charmed and plagued by its historical structures, suffers from this toxic reality. To address this contamination, the city arranged a lead paint abatement program in 1994 to supply access to families in urgent need of support and who could not afford the home repair which can cost thousands of dollars. Although this program has helped over 100 eligible families since January 2021, there’s a lot of work to do before Allentown’s historic spaces are free of lead paint. According to the Morning Call, it’s possible that program eligibility accommodates too small a group, leaving other financially vulnerable residents out of luck.
While lead paint remains a relevant health concern requiring steady and immediate attention, the 2016 Flint, Michigan crisis shifted national focus. After witnessing the damage caused by Flint’s lead pipes leaching into drinking water, our government had to act. The Biden-Haris Administration made a goal to remove and replace 100% of lead service lines back in 2021. Cities like Newark, NJ have made extensive progress through a systematic replacement program. In order to further promote this goal, the Biden administration established a more specified program Get the Lead Out (GLO) to aid 200 low-income communities through additional federally supported abatement programs. Allentown is one of the 200.
Before pipes can be removed, they need to be located. This job was allocated to Lehigh County Authority (LCA). The LCA explains that they need to figure out where all the lead pipes are by 2024, a task that can only be completed with resident support. In order to reach this goal, they posted a five part survey gathering basic property information. When it comes to replacing water pipes, the homeowner is financially “responsible for the portion of the service line that runs from the curb to the house,” as specified in the graphic LCA posted on their website (see below). The city is responsible for the rest.
But who's paying for all this?
After an initial push to figure out where the lead pipes are in Allentown, residents will be responsible for scheduling an appointment for 15-30 minute service line inspection. Once the inspection is over, the LCA website states that they will inform residents where the lead pipes are in the city and let residents know how they can take care of any lead pipes on privately owned property. Pennvest is providing nearly $3.4 million as a grant and $1.6 million as a loan to replace one public and 149 private lead water pipes in Allentown. However, the cost of complying with EPA’s requirements on lead pipes will be about $50 million, according to a presentation by LCA in December.
“The individual homeowners will not be required to remove their lead pipes or be subject to any fines or penalties for failing to do so,” explains Arundhati Khanwalkar with Allentown’s Environmental Advisory Council. “Only the LCA (as the water supply operator) or the City of Allentown (as the owner of the water supply system), would be subject to fines. The main problem is that the cost of identifying and removing the lead pipes must be borne by the water users through higher water bills.”
And lead pipes might not really be the problem. According to the LCA’s tests ,”the non-corrosive properties of LCA’s water are working to keep lead levels to a minimum.” This means that the EPA might require Allentown to replace those lead pipes, even if they are not leaching lead into their water.
It might seem weird to question the cost or benefit of removing lead, whether or not it’s leaching. After all, we established the inherent health risks of lead consumption. While the health issues related to lead is a core concern, there is a broader issue to consider. That is equity. As Allentown’s most financially burdened residents are asked to do more with less, a government edict to replace lead pipes without any broad health benefit can create its own crisis. According to an article in Lehigh Valley News, Allentown residents are also going to have to pay for an increase in water and sewer fees to help cover an estimated $600 million project to fix aging pipe infrastructure. Recent city council meetings around discussions of tax increases have resulted in desperate pleas from residents to alleviate any additional financial burdens. Both the CDC and the EPA agree that no amount of lead is safe for children. But poverty and financial stress also have a health impact. This dynamic asks us to look at the broader dynamic of government versus individual responsibility for an aging city – Especially when a majority of the citys’ downtown residents fall under the poverty line.
Enter: Environmental Justice
These projects, though necessary to maintain resident health and municipal longevity, are a collective financial burden. This may impact a city like Allentown differently than other areas because Allentown is categorized as an Environmental Justice zone. Identified by a mapping and screening tool (which you can access via their website), Environmental Justice zones mark communities that are disproportionately impacted by environmental issues. These areas are often made up of low income and minoritized communities.
When an area is carved out as an Environmental Justice area it means that those spots are in greater need of systemic support to address issues around food, water, shelter, energy, mobility: inherent environmental concerns that deeply impact and overlap with human needs. This is not an individual problem, but a systemic issue that needs a systemic response.
Is the Biden Administrations’ national push for lead pipe removal the answer? Some might say yes. No amount of lead is a safe amount of lead to consume and we need to do our part as members of a greater community to address this issue. Even if it is expensive. Others might feel differently. When the federal government makes decisions that impact each city equally, it does not account for the unique needs of local life. Equity, in this case, seems to be the most holistic pursuit.