Pennsylvania Approves Advanced Technology to Detect Lead Water Lines

Pennsylvania State Capitol

HARRISBURG, PA — The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) has approved Electro Scan Inc.’s SWORDFISH technology to inventory lead water service lines. This approval marks a significant development in the state’s efforts to modernize and secure its water infrastructure.

Prior to this approval, water systems had to physically excavate or expose buried water services to determine their material composition. With the SWORDFISH device, water operators can now identify lead pipes without digging, streamlining the process and reducing costs.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires over 50,000 U.S. water systems to conduct comprehensive inventories of various pipe materials, including copper, galvanized, plastic, and lead. Pennsylvania alone has nearly 9,200 public water systems that will benefit from this new technology. The PADEP’s approval notes that operators using the SWORDFISH device “will not need to physically verify the service line material by potholing or excavating.”

Pennsylvania, with its population of nearly 13 million and over 5.7 million housing units, faces a significant challenge in updating its water infrastructure. The median year built for these units is 1964, highlighting the prevalence of aging pipelines. By comparison, New York, which approved SWORDFISH in 2023, has an older median housing year of 1957 and faces similar infrastructure challenges.

Lead pipes were banned in 1986, yet many older homes still contain these hazardous materials. In the past, utilities often sent crews to photograph meter boxes and other outdoor fixtures to catalog pipe materials. However, lead pipes and soldering materials used in older constructions continue to pose risks.

Municipal and publicly traded water systems are preparing for stricter regulations under the Lead and Copper Rule Improvements (LCRI). These new rules may require extensive testing of water quality, particularly during excavation, which can dislodge lead particulates. Homeowners might also gain the right to request retesting if they dispute initial inventory results.

The LCRI will mandate that all unknown pipe materials be identified within three years, or they will be classified as lead and scheduled for replacement within ten years. This regulation aims to mitigate the health risks associated with lead contamination in drinking water.

Over a quarter of Pennsylvania homes were built before 1939, a time when lead pipes were commonly used. Cities like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Scranton, Harrisburg, and Erie have the highest numbers of such homes, but there are still over a million pre-1939 homes across the state.

A 2017 report by the Environmental Defense Fund rated Pennsylvania highly for its mandatory disclosure of lead pipes, earning an A-minus rating. The state’s proactive stance on lead disclosure aligns with the recent PADEP approval of SWORDFISH technology.

A key condition of this approval is that water operators must be trained to use the SWORDFISH device. Operators must either be Electro Scan employees or contractors or personnel from public water systems who have completed a manufacturer-provided two-day training and follow standard operating procedures.

This move by Pennsylvania leverages advanced technology to enhance public safety and streamline the identification and replacement of lead water lines. It reflects a broader trend towards adopting innovative solutions in infrastructure management.

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