The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority [PWSA], plagued with an ongoing lead crisis, may finally have lead levels under control.
New data, independently analyzed by PublicSource and verified by the state Department of Environmental Protection [DEP] on Wednesday, show that lead levels in Pittsburgh’s drinking water are going down, a sign that the authority’s efforts could be paying off.
Lead test data collected from Pittsburgh homes between January and June show lead levels have fallen to 10 parts per billion [ppb], a significant drop from the last round of testing. Between July and December last year, the same tests produced lead levels of 21 ppb. While it’s not safe to consume any amount of lead, a known neurotoxin, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets an “action limit” of 15 ppb, which the state DEP follows. There are regulatory consequences for exceeding 15 ppb threshold. PWSA currently operates under Pennsylvania Utility Commission oversight. In addition to this oversight, it is also required to meet its replacement targets and other goals by a DEP consent order—a legally binding order the authority must follow. PWSA signed the consent order with the DEP last November.
Here’s how the data break down:
- Between Jan. 1 and June 30, PWSA received random water samples from 108 homes and tested for lead and copper
- Ninety percent of those homes had lead levels of 10 ppb or lower
- Lead was undetectable in 60 homes (55.5 percent)
- 43 homes had lead in the water, but at levels below the 15 ppb action limit.
- Only five homes had lead levels above the action limit. One of those homes tested at 96 ppb
In a press release issued Wednesday morning, PWSA Executive Director Robert Weimar said the latest testing is good news, but more work is ahead.
“While we’re pleased that the latest results are trending downward, PWSA will not rest until we improve our water treatment using orthophosphate and replace the lead lines in our system,” he said in the press release, referencing the authority’s efforts to add a new chemical to the water system. “We know what needs to be done, and we’re moving full speed ahead to deliver for our customers.”
In a statement, County Controller Chelsa Wagner said that the newest lead test results do not mean the lead crisis is over. Rather, she said, the low levels only indicate the “high variability of testing methods that can show false negatives.”
“As changes in corrosion control have yet to occur, lower readings represent nothing more than the 'luck of the draw.' Any family with a lead line remains at risk and should be filtering their water,” she said, adding that she commends PWSA for working to replace lead lines and distribute water filters.
However, she said, “[T]he results released today do not indicate that the crisis has passed for families with remaining lead lines, or that the process of replacing all lead service lines has become any less necessary or urgent.”
The lower lead levels come as PWSA, operating under the DEP consent order, has ramped up its efforts to replace lead water lines in the city. PWSA said in its press release that it had replaced more than 1,341 lead lines by the end of last month, exceeding the DEP requirement to replace at least that many. Those replacements include about 300 private lead line replacements. Lauren Fraley, a DEP spokesperson, said in an email that PWSA must replace an additional 855 lead lines by the end of the year.
In an email Wednesday afternoon, PWSA spokesperson Will Pickering said the drop in lead levels could be due to the authority bettering operations at its water treatment facility, which included stabilizing chlorine levels. Since the tests were done at homes with lead pipes, Pickering said PWSA's lead line replacements would not have contributed to the lower test results, though he said the line replacements "[confirm] that we’re on track to stabilize and renew our publicly-owned water, sewer, and stormwater systems." PWSA has replaces approximately 1,500 lead lines since July 2016, Pickering said.
Under the DEP consent order, PWSA must replace an additional 7 percent of its lead lines by the end of the year. The consent order was the result of PWSA being out of compliance for lead levels twice in the recent past. As a consequence, the DEP mandated that PWSA replace 14 percent of its lead lines in two six-month windows in 2018, 7 percent at a time. Fraley said in an email that a recent calculation shows 7 percent equals 855 lead lines.
The 108 homes included in this latest round of testing are known to have lead pipes. PWSA estimates about 25 percent of its water system is made of lead, though that figure is based on incomplete records of where the pipes are located. To remedy that, PWSA is combing through its historical records and creating an online map of where its lines are and what they’re made of.
PWSA is also trying to control lead levels through chemical means. The DEP recently gave its approval to PWSA to add orthophosphates to its system. These chemicals will be added at the water treatment plants and flow throughout the system. Orthophosphates coat the inside of lead and copper pipes and prevent the pipes from corroding and contaminating the water with lead. Currently, PWSA uses caustic soda to prevent lead from flaking off pipes, though Executive Director Weimar has said orthophosphates are more effective. Pickering said in an email that PWSA is waiting for the DEP to approve a construction permit before it starts adding orthophosphates to the water system. Weimar told PublicSource previously that he hopes to have the chemicals added by the fall.
The lower lead levels come at a time when control over PWSA itself is being reevaluated. Recently, Peoples Gas has started an aggressive push to take over PWSA and form a public-private partnership that would hand control of the authority to a new body, Peoples Water. The company has said it would run Peoples Water alongside public officials. Peoples has promised to build a new water treatment plant, replace all of PWSA’s water infrastructure in five years and freeze rates for customers, as well as pay off PWSA’s $1 billion in debt. Weimar, however, has voiced confidence that the authority can reduce lead levels, replace lead lines and solve its other issues without a private company’s involvement.
Activists and other community members have made repeated calls for PWSA and the city’s water infrastructure to remain in the public’s hands. They argue that if a private company controls the water authority, it will prioritize its profits over water quality. At a special session of City Council last week, community members railed against Peoples’ plans for nearly two hours, saying they don’t trust Peoples to keep the water clean and rates affordable.
Pittsburgh City Council is also considering legislation, originally written and introduced by the mayor's office, that would change PWSA’s governance locally, though it would remain under state oversight. Currently, PWSA is run by a board of directors chosen by the mayor and approved by City Council. The new legislation would create a board of nominators, appointed by the mayor, and that body would then select the board of directors. Some city council members have raised concerns that the new structure could cut them out of the process, which they argue means less public control over the water system.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional comment from PWSA and the DEP. The latest version also clarifies how many lead lines PWSA must replace by the end of the year.
J. Dale Shoemaker is PublicSource's government and data reporter. You can reach him at 412-515-0060 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @JDale_Shoemaker. He can be reached securely via PGP: bit.ly/2ig07qL