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PWSA is second largest U.S. water system exceeding federal lead level

| Tuesday, May 2, 2017, 9:15 p.m.
File photo - Highland Park reservoir Wednesday December 17, 2008
The repairs of the water main break earlier in the week at the intersection of Wood Street and Fort Pitt Blvd. are nearly complete on Saturday January 5, 2013. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
File photo - A sign requesting that people not contaminate the uncovered Highland Park Reservoir is attached to the short gate around the water, Thursday, October 4th, 2001.

Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority is the second largest water system in the country with lead levels that exceed a key federal threshold, according to an Environmental Protection Agency database.

Mayor Bill Peduto's office has characterized Pittsburgh's problem with lead in the drinking water as one among thousands of systems with similar challenges, but PWSA is one of only seven systems in the country that serves more than 100,000 people and is exceeding the threshold.

A March 28 news release from the mayor's office stated: “The Mayor's Office has been making legitimate strides to protect residents of the city who — like those in more than 5,300 municipalities nationwide — have unacceptable levels of lead in their water system.”

A city web page launched last week contained similar language: “Pittsburgh is one of an overwhelming number of municipalities across the country facing a health and safety challenge due to lead in its water system.”

Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner said such statements downplay the issue of lead in PWSA water in a national context.

“It's a difference of scale, especially when we are number two in the country,” Wagner said.

Tim McNulty, a Peduto spokesman, defended the statements.

“It's absurd to say the city is downplaying the lead issue,” McNulty said in a statement. “From the $1 million free filter plan to hiring a firm to look at long-term changes to the authority, the city is taking assertive actions to make sure our water is safe. As the data shows, lead in water is a challenge facing municipalities across the country. Pittsburgh is doing all it can to address it.”

According to the database , there are about 1,200 water systems in the country that had at least 10 percent of water samples test above the 15 parts per billion threshold in 2016 samples.

But many of those are for very small systems, serving as few as 25 residents each, said Peter Grevatt, director of the EPA's office of groundwater and drinking water.

“When we think about large systems, we're thinking of those larger than 100,000,” Grevatt said. “As a system that serves 520,000, Pittsburgh is a very large system. There are not very many systems in the U.S. that large that have exceedances.”

Portland, Ore., is the only water system that exceeds the federal lead threshold and serves more people than PWSA.

EPA requires systems that exceed the 15 ppb threshold to replace a portion of lead pipes and perform educational outreach to the community — both initiatives that are underway by PWSA.

Portland Water Bureau serves 585,000 people compared to PWSA's 520,000. Those figures include all commuters and visitors who drink the water, not just households, which is why it's higher than the 250,000 customers PWSA typically cites.

The other systems exceeding the threshold, from largest to smallest, include Providence, R.I., Passaic Valley, N.J., Tulatin Valley, Ore., Jackson, Miss., and Green Bay, Wis.

The water system in Flint, Mich., where lead levels spiked in 2014 when the city switched the water source, serves just under 100,000 people, according to the database.

PWSA, which says the issue is caused by lead pipes, is the only one of the seven systems that had at least 10 percent of its water samples exceed the federal threshold twice in a row during the last five years, according to the database.

PWSA's 90th percentile result was 22 ppb from January to June 2016 and 18 ppb from July to December . Portland's water from July to December tested at 17 ppb. New PWSA test results are set to come out in June.

Theresa Clift is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-566, tclift@tribweb.com or via twitter @tclift.

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