Biden visits Philadelphia to announce funds for water upgrades, lead pipe removal

Biden visited a water treatment plant to announce $160 million to upgrade Philadelphia water facilities and replace 20 miles of lead water mains.

President Joe Biden meets with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023. Biden hasn’t announced a reelection campaign, but some of the themes of his likely bid should be on display when he addresses a national Democratic Party meeting.  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

President Joe Biden meets with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023. Biden hasn’t announced a reelection campaign, but some of the themes of his likely bid should be on display when he addresses a national Democratic Party meeting. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

President Joe Biden visited the Belmont Water Treatment Plant in Philadelphia Friday, where he announced $160 million in federal funding to replace close to 20 miles of water mains in Philadelphia. During that project, the city will also replace any customer lead service lines found.

Philadelphia will also receive a $340 million Water Infrastructure and Innovation Act loan to help upgrade the city’s water system. Part of that funding will replace 15 miles of water mains, and about 160 customer lead lines.

The funding comes from a bipartisan infrastructure package Congress passed in 2021.

The move is part of a larger effort to remove lead pipes around the country. 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 thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced 10 Pennsylvania communities will be chosen to participate in the new “Accelerators” program dedicated to replacing lead service lines.

“The issue has to do with basic dignity. Every American deserves to turn on their water tap or faucet and drink clean water,” Biden said. “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.”

The announcement comes as the city has proposed to increase water rates over the next two years. A customer’s monthly bill could increase almost 12% in the first year, which would average about $8 a month, according to the water department. Customers would also face an 8.32% increase in the second year, which would raise the typical residential water bill by $6.45 a month. (The water department bases these averages on the typical customer use of 3,336 gallons per month).

Rob Ballenger is the director of the energy unit at Community Legal Services. He said the announcement is a cause for celebration, but does not completely address rates and charges for customers. Funding must be sustained in the long-term in order for services to be affordable, Ballenger argues. The city is projecting that its capital expenditures for water and wastewater infrastructure will be in excess of $4.5 billion from now through fiscal year 2028.

“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,” Ballenger said.

“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.”

Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson called the city’s proposal for a rate increase “excessive” and “unnecessary.”

“I hope that with this new development, the Philadelphia Water, Sewer and Storm Water Rate Board will make the right decision and not increase costs on residents,” she said in a statement. “Doing so will only negatively impact Philadelphians, especially middle-class families who don’t qualify for assistance.”.

However, a spokesman for the Water Department said the new funding does not reverse the city’s plans to increase water rates, as the newly announced financing was anticipated and factored into the rate request.

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.

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.

Environmental groups are applauding the Biden’s administration’s promise to fund lead service line replacements.

“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,” said Tom Neltner, senior director, safer chemicals, Environmental Defense Fund.

“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.”

President Joe Biden hasn’t announced a reelection campaign, but some of the themes likely to be the centerpiece of that expected run should be on display Friday night when he addresses a national Democratic Party meeting.

The president will focus on his administration’s accomplishments creating jobs and stimulating domestic manufacturing when he and Vice President Kamala Harris appear at a Democratic National Committee gathering in Philadelphia.

With the State of the Union address coming next week, Biden has renewed calls for political unity, something he’s acknowledged being unable to achieve despite his promises to do so as a candidate in 2020. But those appeals can quickly pivot to broadsides against his predecessor, Donald Trump, and the Republican Party’s continued fealty to the former president’s “Make America Great Again” movement.

The DNC says Biden’s speech will highlight how Republicans are seeking to undermine the progress the president says has made during his first two years — a theme he’s already begun hitting.

“Look, this is not your father’s Republican Party,” the president said this week at a DNC fundraiser in New York. “This is a different breed of cat.”

He added, “I don’t know what’s gone haywire here” with the GOP. Going forward, he said, Democrats will “have to make clear that we’re not going to put up with MAGA Republicans.”

Biden is facing increasing pressure in Washington, where a special counsel is investigating how classified documents turned up in his home and a former office, and a Republican-controlled House is investigating everything from the administration’s immigration procedures at the U.S.-Mexico border to the overseas ties of the president’s son Hunter.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

That’s made some top Democrats anxious to see Biden stay on the political offensive.

“The president is trying to solve the problems of the nation on infrastructure, on microchips, on gun safety, on health care, and I think he’s going to talk about doing that,” said Randi Weingarten, a DNC member and president of the American Federation of Teachers. “And then also compare (that) to the GOP, which seems to be on a revenge agenda.”

The president’s speech comes the day before the DNC is set to approve an overhauled presidential primary calendar starting next year that would replace Iowa with South Carolina in the leadoff spot. New Hampshire and Nevada would go second, followed by Georgia and Michigan — a change Biden has championed to ensure that voters of color have more influence deciding the party’s White House nominee.

The new calendar would be largely moot in the short term if Biden runs again, reducing the chance of a major Democratic primary challenger.

His expected announcement of a reelection campaign is still likely weeks away. But Biden’s advisers have been preparing for one for months, making staffing arrangements and readying lines of political attacks against Republicans seen as early presidential front-runners, including Trump, who launched his campaign in November, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“I look forward to being on your side when you run for president in 2024,” outgoing White House chief of staff Ron Klain told Biden during a farewell speech Wednesday night.

Alan Clendenin, a DNC member from Florida, said Biden has strengthened the economy, reestablished U.S. global standing and promoted inclusive values — the opposite of what Trump and DeSantis stand for.

“They predicted gloom and doom. He’s proved them all wrong,” said Clendenin, who kicked off a DNC Southern caucus meeting by noting that Florida has begun lagging behind other states in key policy areas and joking of its governor, “That’s what happened when you’re led by the devil.”

Biden repeatedly denounced “extreme MAGA Republicans” as a threat to the nation’s democracy in the runup to last fall’s midterm elections, when his party pulled off a stronger-than-expected showing. The president has since worked to portray today’s GOP as beholden as ever to Trump, saying at the New York fundraiser, “You’d think that what would happen is that there would be a little bit, as we Catholics say, (of) an epiphany.”

“Well, instead, it’s been the exact opposite,” Biden said. “They’ve just doubled down.”

The president will have a harder time campaigning on future legislative accomplishments now that a House Republican majority has promised to thwart the White House policy agenda at every turn. A coming fight over extending the nation’s legal debt ceiling may only harden partisan clashes.

Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said he and the White House would continue talking about ways to avoid a debt limit crisis. But, referring to federal spending, McCarthy said, “The current path we’re on we cannot sustain.”

Biden has also suggested that simply bashing Republicans won’t be enough to expand his party’s electoral base. He acknowledged that his 2020 run brought the support of “not enough, but a fair number of blue-collar workers” and lamented that such voters “used to always be our folks.”

The president said his party has seen its support among Americans without a college degree decline “because a lot of people think we left them behind.” He said that perception has more to do with attitude than with policy.

Weingarten, whose union represents 1.7 million members, said Biden is right to acknowledge criticisms that Democrats can be seen as elitist, but said those charges were coming from a GOP that has done little to help workers or families. By contrast, she said, Biden has solidified pension funds, promoted union membership and helped reduce costs for low income families.

“There’s a lot of grievance in the country about the loss of good union jobs,” she said. “Regardless of what has happened in the past, I would say that Joe Biden is a working person’s president.”

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal