Jude Vachon bought her “sweet little two-bedroom house” in Lawrenceville in 2009. It’s the first place she’s ever owned.
Her home, which she shares with her dog Charlie and cat Bedelia (like Amelia Bedelia), used to give Vachon, 52, a sense of security and safety.
But after getting a “nerve-racking” letter from the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority [PWSA] about lead, she requested a test kit to check her home’s pipes. Scratching the pipes revealed a soft, dull gray metal. The lead test came back at 38.6 parts per billion — more than double the Environmental Protection Agency’s action level.
Now her sanctuary seems threatening. She worries: “Am I being poisoned in my own home?” She can’t afford to replace her service line.
Jude is one of PWSA’s 300,000 customers. She is who the water utility is talking to when it says that if you want to get rid of the lead pipes carrying water into your home, then you, as a homeowner, will have to cover the cost of replacing the pipes on your property.
Depending on the size of your yard, the location of trees and other factors, the price tag on replacing the pipes can range anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.
What most people don’t realize is that the ownership and control of different parts of the water system have been contested since the early 1990s.
When the EPA first started working on getting lead out of water pipes through the Safe Drinking Water Act, they required water utilities to undertake the replacement of all lead service lines — including those that went into privately owned homes and buildings.
But in 1993, when lead contamination started making headlines, water utilities throughout the country began claiming they didn't have the right to replace lead pipes on private property.
Their argument had some precedent. When the service lines were installed in the early 1900s, the homeowner usually had ownership. But it was city engineers who mandated using lead pipes.
Following a lawsuit by the American Water Works Association trade group in 1993, the original rules in the federal act were struck down. In 2000, the EPA revised the Lead and Copper Rule to instead make the cost of replacing lead pipes on private property the responsibility of homeowners.
The federal rule will be up for another round of revisions this year. Before then, the proposed changes will be posted for public comment. This is a motivation for Paul Schwartz, a D.C.-based clean water policy advocate, to continue pushing back on utilities that he believes are ducking their responsibilities. He thinks the time has never been better to change the policy on lead pipes.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto is also trying to effect change. On March 8, he announced a Safe Water Plan in which he said he plans to propose reforms to Pennsylvania's Municipal Authorities Act. The act prevents the PWSA from replacing the private side of lead lines.
There’s no telling how long reforms could take, if they come to pass at all. And with PWSA contracted to partially replace 1,500 lead lines on public property by July 1, the situation’s urgency is growing.
Just because PWSA is getting rid of some of the lead lines doesn’t mean there will automatically be less lead contamination. In fact, a job done halfway can make it worse.
The public-private divide
As Schwartz points out, there isn’t any controversy over whether a gas or phone company has the right to go onto private land to fix a leaky pipe or a downed wire to address a “public health hazard.”
But the 2000 revision of the law created a slippery slope, said Schwartz, who currently works for both the Water Alliance and the Campaign for Lead Free Water. Several reports indicate that water utilities nationwide have been claiming they have control over smaller and smaller sections of once-public water lines.
Some water authorities, he said, have even decided to “gift” sections of water pipes to residents, meaning the community then has “control and ownership” of those pipes — also making them the residents’ liability.
PWSA maintains it has no authority to claim ownership and control over the pipes on privately owned property.
“The Municipal Authorities Act specifies how we spend ratepayer funds for water infrastructure,” PWSA representatives told PublicSource in an email. “PWSA cannot access private property without consent and would be held to any/all damages that may result in occupying private property.”
The water authority representative added that throughout its history, PWSA has “very rarely made repairs to privately owned service lines, unless there are extenuating circumstances requiring such work to be performed.”
However, in Philadelphia, there has been a more proactive approach. According to Philadelphia Water Department Spokesperson Laura Copeland, the department will replace private lead service lines at no cost if they discover them during water main replacements — and receive consent from the homeowner. But they won’t replace lines for free at the request of a homeowner.
Shaking lead loose
Vachon doesn’t have the cash on hand to replace her lines, so she’s been researching “like a crazy person” about lead and ways to protect herself from it.
After hours of research, even if she could afford the replacement pipes, she says, “I don’t know if I really want to with the spikes that happen with work on the lines.”
Because lead testing in Pittsburgh yielded results above a federal limit last year, PWSA is obligated to replace 7 percent of the city’s lead service lines per year — until the results come back below 15 ppb.
Here’s why that’s a problem: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that when only part of a lead service line is replaced, children living near those water lines are twice as likely to have elevated levels of lead in their blood than if none of the lead pipes had been replaced at all.
The reason? The partial pipe replacement process shakes loose the remaining pipe’s lead, causing an increase in lead at the tap for weeks or months after construction ends.
PWSA told PublicSource that the agency is aware of the possibility of increased lead levels for three to six months after a partial line replacement.
A water authority representative said PWSA offers to coordinate replacement with the owner. If that’s not possible, it provides water flushing and filter information.
As part of its Safe Water Plan, Pittsburgh city government prioritized three groups to receive lead filters. One of those groups are residents in areas where the PWSA is replacing lines, according to city spokesman Tim McNulty. The other two groups are homes that tested at or above 10 ppb and low-income families. (The low-income designation is yet to be defined, according to McNulty.)
PWSA estimates there are 16,000 to 20,000 public lead service lines in its coverage area (20-25 percent of all service lines) and says it could cost ratepayers up to $200 million to replace them over the next 10 years. That does not include lead water lines on private property.
Unlike Pittsburgh, water utilities in some communities have control of all pipes, like in Lansing, Michigan. Lansing successfully completed a 12-year undertaking to replace all of the city’s more than 12,000 lead service lines, including those located on private property, with minimal cost to ratepayers.
“Some years we had rate increases and other years we didn’t,” says Steve Serkaian, the executive director of public affairs for Lansing’s Board of Water and Light. “In Lansing, we just included the cost of replacing the service lines in our budget over the course of 12 years.”
Serkaian said that in Lansing, they developed an innovative, trenchless pipe replacement method that only requires excavating two small holes. The entire project cost around $44.5 million.
Should replacing pipes be a priority?
Were it not for some idle neighborly chatter in July 2016, Kanitra Lane wouldn’t have known about the lead in Pittsburgh’s water. A friend from across the street mentioned a notice she received from the PWSA about elevated lead levels to the 33-year-old resident of the Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar neighborhood.
“I instantly got scared because we’ve been drinking the sink water, so my reaction was, ‘Oh my goodness, are we OK?’” Lane said.
After finding out about lead in July, Lane, a mother of two sons — 7-year-old Major and 15-month-old Mason — started buying bottled water for drinking. She also bought water purifiers for other uses, thinking they filtered lead. They didn't. By December 2016, she was using bottled water for cooking and brushing her kids’ teeth.
“If we had to live off buying water...that’s expensive,” Lane said.
This problem is compounded for renters like Lane, who have no control over whether their landlord will opt to replace the lead pipes leading into their homes. And even for those who do have control, the expense of both filters and pipe replacement may be too much.
“There was an economic study done this past summer showing that 40 percent of Americans don't have access to $400 to do anything in the event of an emergency,” Schwartz said.
When homeowners have to cover the cost, rates of participation in voluntary line replacement are typically very low.
In Washington, D.C., for example, the water utility launched a campaign urging residents to cover the cost of privately owned lead lines, providing low-interest loans programs as an incentive. But despite the fact that serious, widespread lead poisoning of children had just recently come to light, only 25 percent of the utility’s customers opted to pay for lead line replacement on their own property.
The Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh passed a similar program on March 9, offering low-interest loans to low-income homeowners to finance the replacement of lead service lines on their private property. The program will start with an initial fund of $500,000. PWSA estimates the average loan will cost $6,000.
As for Lane, her test results say no lead was detected in her water. She thinks it may be because the house was renovated before she moved in. But she isn’t 100 percent sure, so she’s still buying bottled water.
That’s not an irrational precaution: Schwartz cautions that if there are any lead pipes carrying water into a building, the lead content at the tap can change from moment to moment and week to week as the lead is shaken loose or settles due to construction, heavy trucks rolling over the street and other environmental factors.
“I reached a point where I don’t trust the water at all,” Lane said.
‘The absolute least that I deserve’
Schwartz asserts that most water utilities have continued doing partial pipe replacements, despite knowing it’s more dangerous than leaving the pipes alone, because it’s the bare minimum requirement under the law. It’s a practice that can only be changed with public pressure, he said.
The local nonprofit Women for a Healthy Environment is working with Schwartz and the Campaign for Lead Free Water to grow a movement for clean water in the region.
“In Pittsburgh, you have a history of collective actions through unions and community organization, women's health groups and others, plus a broader ring of academic resources and funding resources,” Schwartz says. “Plenty of tools that people locally can access to deal with this problem.
“Hopefully those of us who’ve been through this in D.C. can stand in solidarity with folks in Pittsburgh and help them understand that there's a bus coming down the road that's about to smack them, and hopefully we can help get them get out of the way.”
Back in Lawrenceville, Vachon sighs. Though replacing her pipes isn’t doable, she was able to buy herself a $238 water filter for her kitchen sink. It provides her with some sense of security.
She’s resentful of PWSA, though she said the agency could do something to make things right.
“I wish I would get a check for $238,” she said. “It seems like the absolute least that I deserve.”
Reach freelancer Kristina Marusic at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @KristinaSaurusR. Stephen Caruso is an intern for PublicSource. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenJ_Caruso.