Despite what you may have heard, 2016 was not the first spike of lead levels in Pittsburgh’s water. And it did not directly coincide with the conclusion of three years of management by Veolia Water either. In fact, lead levels had been spiking in fits and starts for more than 15 years, according to data the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority reported to the feds.
At PWSA’s lab, there hadn’t been a lot of worry about lead, said Jay Kuchta, a microbiologist there for 30 years before retiring in 2014. Kuchta’s home had lead pipes and his tests were coming back with little to no lead in them.
The city’s lead levels were increasing but rarely above the lead threshold set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA].
Then in 2013, five houses included in the routine testing of 50 homes suddenly showed levels above the EPA’s lead threshold and PWSA was right on the edge of falling out of compliance.
PWSA would have three years to make changes before its water would have to be tested again for lead. Even the slightest increase would mean a large and expensive problem for the agency.
Dysfunction behind the numbers
PWSA’s lab wasn’t a harmonious place. That’s according to five staff members who worked there at the time and two others who worked directly with the staff.
If you asked the lab staff from back then, the problem was their boss, Stanley States, the director of water quality. They say he thought he knew more than he did and didn’t show much interest in working on environmental compliance issues. “He couldn’t have been less interested except that we had to pass,” said Kuchta.
States had been filling out environmental compliance forms incorrectly and refused to fix it after Veolia’s leadership discovered the problem, according to an official with oversight of PWSA’s lab. When asked by PublicSource, States said he didn’t know anything about the issue.
But a confidential memo from PWSA’s lawyer to two top officials at Veolia at the time said States told Veolia staff that the [state Department of environmental Protection] “will never know” about the lab’s testing irregularities. The memo said States threatened to fire employees who brought up ideas for change and “generally failed to show respect for subordinate employees.”
If you ask States, the problem was he had to hire subpar employees at low salaries. His staff didn’t like him, he said, because he was their manager and made them work. “We are a city department. It’s not IBM. You don’t get the best employees. You try to get the best you can. It’s not the creme de la creme,” he said.
States and the staff all said they hated Veolia, who they say pushed out a number of employees and starved the department of resources it needed to do its job.
But the blame on Veolia isn’t so clear cut, even by these employee accounts. States said many water authorities were making the same staffing changes that Veolia was proposing under PWSA: outsourcing expensive water tests that didn’t need to be performed regularly. A consultant had recommended cutting lab staff before Veolia even arrived, and PWSA had already begun outsourcing some tests. Then the lab staff fell from 10 people to six under Veolia.
States was assigned a job outside the lab at the start of 2013, after which PWSA promoted and cycled through several other leaders. So just as PWSA’s water was seeing increasing levels of lead in 2013, the department that was in one of the best positions to raise the alarm was in transition. States told local and national media outlets that if he was still in charge of the lab at PWSA when the lead results came out in 2013, he would’ve done something about it.
But the national media didn’t seem to know about States' resistance to compliance or clashes with his own staff. One staff member doubts States would’ve done much with the new lead data, given that he’d already had years of rising lead levels between 1999 and 2010 on his watch.
“Stanley should’ve been looking into it because [testing] was every few years. So you had three years to look into but he never looked into it,” one lab employee said.
PWSA gave up its lab certification in 2015 after running into problems with the Pennsylvania DEP for using incorrect testing methods the year before.
News reports during the crisis focused on how PWSA had changed corrosion control chemicals from soda ash to caustic soda in 2014 and then back again 2016. The change in corrosion controls was done illegally, without testing how it might have impacted the water or getting approval. The lead levels rose above 15 ppb (the federal action limit) in 2016 and stayed above it for three years.
States said the two chemicals were used interchangeably over the years. He said a study from the 1980s showed the chemicals both impacted the pH, and he believed there was no difference between them. Soda ash was cheaper, so they typically used it, as they were permitted to do.
States didn’t understand news reports that made a big deal out of the fact that PWSA switched to caustic soda. “So what? We always switched that,” he said. “DEP is very picky and, scientifically, it didn’t make sense. We used to switch over when we ran out of one, that was a backup chemical.”
But Leonard Casson, the University of Pittsburgh professor who performed the study States referenced, said the two chemicals were not actually equivalent. They both raise the pH of the water, making it less corrosive. But soda ash also leaves behind a protective barrier that caustic soda does not. Casson worked with lab staff, including States, during his study and said States was a professional who wouldn’t have purposefully done anything to jeopardize water safety.
But States did not understand the chemistry like Casson did.
If PWSA changed the chemicals out for just a couple of days, it might not have had much impact on lead in the water system, Casson said. But if it was changing out chemicals for longer periods of time, it could have caused the increasing lead levels that PWSA was seeing in its water from 1999 to 2013.
Around 2014, the cost of soda ash rose. And one of the machines responsible for feeding soda ash into the system had broken. So the staff at PWSA switched to caustic soda.
PWSA had a history of making short-term fixes at the cheapest possible costs, rather than investing in the major repairs needed. When board member Caren Glotfelty visited the water treatment plant during Veolia’s tenure, she said it looked dirty and dangerous.
“These were signs of very long-term neglect. These were not problems that came up just after Veolia took over the system. Let me be clear: These were signs of failure to invest, failure to maintain a system over a long period of time,” she said.
This was heightened under Veolia’s leadership. Veolia’s contract allowed it to collect up to half of any money it saved from improvements and efficiencies. It created a culture in which some staff may have worked to cut costs to curry favor with Veolia and others acted on those measures independently so that Veolia couldn’t take credit.
Some of the only evidence that ever became public about the chemical change were a few emails written by PWSA staff uncovered by local media. One email in 2014 said explicitly that PWSA should share information about the switch to caustic soda with other PWSA staff before informing Veolia about the switch.
The first public email that included former Veolia staff came almost two years later, touting how much money had been saved. “I also wanted to bring up the fact that we here at the treatment plant accomplished tremendous savings, via in-house treatment changes,” Glenn Lijewski wrote to Veolia management in October 2015. “We are now using caustic soda for final pH adjustment versus soda ash.”
Changing treatment chemicals without getting prior DEP approval was against the law.
Lijewski was typical of a certain kind of employee at PWSA who had worked his way up over time but didn’t get enough training for his position, according to one PWSA official. He had started in maintenance but found himself in charge of the entire drinking water plant by 2014. He didn’t have the expertise in water quality and legal compliance that would be expected of a plant manager today, according to that PWSA official.
PWSA staff that worked at the treatment plant in Aspinwall were not following the direction of leadership in PWSA’s office Downtown, according to Paul Leger, who served on the board at the time. “The staff out at the plant, the professional staff, made the substitution because they saved money and because they were out of the other chemical but they didn’t tell the executive director who belonged to Veolia,” Leger said. “They just went ahead and did it.”
Some PWSA lab staff believe it’s impossible that Veolia wouldn’t have known about the corrosion control switch. Veolia made regular visits to the plant and the lead results were public. Veolia avoided putting things in writing, one staff member said.
It wouldn’t be the last time that Lijewski would be accused of not following the law at the water treatment plant, according to indictments made by the EPA. Lijewski, who retired from PWSA in 2017, has since been charged with three counts of violating the Clean Water Act. A whistleblower said he was directing sludge to be discharged into the Allegheny River rather than sending it to the sewage treatment.
Lijewski has pleaded not guilty to the charges and faces trial in November. PWSA has admitted wrongdoing and paid a $500,000 fine. James Paprocki, who took over after Lijewski retired, has also pleaded guilty to related charges and faces sentencing in November.
Paprocki declined to be interviewed until his legal process was over. Lijewski didn’t respond to emails sent to his lawyer. But several current and former PWSA employees said they believed Lijewski was unfairly taking the blame for a widely known practice.
Even if Veolia didn’t know about the switch, PWSA board members and staff said the change in corrosion control chemicals reflected a lack of oversight from Veolia.
Leger said the staff in Aspinwall had “gone rogue.”
“They weren’t doing it because they were bad: They were doing it because nobody was paying any attention.”
Lead before 2016?
The change in corrosion control in 2014 doesn’t explain the long-term rise leading up to that change. Whatever was happening to increase the lead levels in Pittsburgh’s water didn’t start in 2014, according to the data. If the soda ash had been working to form a protective barrier in 1999 — what had been happening in the years since then to make it stop working?
One possibility is that the change between soda ash and caustic soda had been happening regularly, as States said was common. The DEP never investigated whether the corrosion control change happened before 2013.
There is an alternative theory: that the lead levels didn’t change so much as the quality of the testing data did. Weimar said he thinks the change in testing procedures probably accounted for the majority of the rise of the lead levels in 2016.
Changes in testing procedures can have a big impact. When Michigan adopted stricter lead testing standards in 2019, the average amount of lead found in the water more than doubled.
EPA regulations only required PWSA to test 50 homes and oftentimes they were the homes of employees, where it was easier for PWSA to get their samples back. But by 2016, when attention on the lead issue hit a peak here, Weimar said PWSA leaders discovered that some of the homes they had been testing didn’t actually have lead pipes. In 2018, PWSA updated which homes it tested again after it had completed a full analysis of where lead pipes had historically been installed.
PWSA didn’t test the same homes from year to year. Between 2001 and 2013, only three homes were tested every single year. This was important because, to the EPA, the only thing that mattered were the six homes with the highest lead levels. A city’s overall lead level was determined by the homes with the fifth and sixth highest lead levels out of 50. So changing out even a few homes could make a big difference.
If what really changed in 2016 was that PWSA became better at testing for lead, it implies something else disturbing: That Pittsburgh’s drinking water could have had dangerously high levels of lead contamination for years before it was caught by the testing in 2016.
There isn’t a lot of evidence to say what really happened. No one ever did the kind of chemical studies, like ones done in Flint, to determine the real source of the lead contamination, said Michael Domach, a PWSA board member and professor of chemical and biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. According to Domach, there is no obvious way to go back now and determine what the lead levels had been like in the past.
Michael Blackhurst, a research scientist at the University of Pittsburgh, has found that the lead data sent to the EPA isn’t that helpful for judging how much lead is in a water system because there aren’t enough samples taken. The results can be skewed by so many factors, such as the time of year. And the results of a lead test in the same home even can vary widely. The EPA’s methodology has been criticized by scientists who say it doesn’t do enough to capture a city’s risk.
So the lead crisis could’ve been with us for much longer than we’ve known.
And it could’ve been over long before, if it weren’t for cost concerns. States said he knew about another treatment that reduced lead in the water more effectively than soda ash for decades: orthophosphates.
One of the unique features of Pittsburgh’s system — an uncovered reservoir in Highland Park — made adding orthophosphates more difficult, he said. The orthophosphates could form poisonous algae blooms in the open air. So, to switch to orthophosphates, PWSA would eventually have to build structures in seven different locations at a cost in excess of $6.2 million to prevent the chemical from getting in the reservoir. When PWSA finally made the switch in 2019, the lead levels measured by PWSA fell precipitously.
Casson, the Pitt professor, said the initial plan to use soda ash based on his study was never meant to be permanent. Problems with the effectiveness of soda ash came to light in Washington, D.C., in the early 2000s. And, Casson said, an expert like States should’ve known about these problems. But for years before Veolia came on board, PWSA didn’t switch to the orthophosphates that would've prevented a lead problem similar to what happened in DC.
But Casson defended States. “He always tried to protect public health. Whatever he did, there was no other intention than to produce good water for public health, within the constraints of PWSA,” Casson said.
As long as PWSA’s water was in compliance with federal regulations, States said, “there was no way we could justify the expense.”
Read the next story in this series: “Part 6 — The key moment: how three PWSA board members ignited the authority's turnaround”
Explore more stories in this series: “A water crisis swept through Pittsburgh five years ago: This is the fullest account of what happened.”
Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.
This story was fact-checked by Matt Maielli.
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