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Pittsburgh's water could exceed federal threshold for lead — again

Natasha Lindstrom
| Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, 7:03 p.m.

Drinking water samples from the faucets of more than 100 homes tested since July indicate that the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority could again exceed the federal threshold for lead levels, Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner said Friday.

Between July 1 and Dec. 31, samples voluntarily submitted by 111 homes suspected of having lead service lines showed a 90th percentile lead level of 21 parts per billion, or ppb, according to calculations by Wagner's office using raw data reported by PWSA. That's up from 15 ppb recorded in the six months leading up to June and 18 ppb reported in December 2016.

Thirteen PWSA-served homes tested showed levels above 15 ppb — the threshold set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Wagner's office found.

The official results from the past six months have yet to be published or certified by regulators with the state Department of Environmental Protection and may differ from Wagner's calculations, PWSA spokesman Will Pickering said. He emphasized that PWSA — with support from Mayor Bill Peduto — continues to press “full-steam ahead” toward eradicating the city's lead problem through a combination of private service line replacements and plans to improve its treatment processes in coming months.

“It is also important to note that the compliance sampling is designed to test worst-case scenario homes and is not an indicator of systemwide drinking water quality,” Pickering added.

Wagner argued the latest raw data demonstrate officials aren't moving fast enough.

“We cannot justifiably hold ourselves out to the world as a smart city when we cannot even begin to address the primary public health issue impacting our residents,” Wagner said.

She called on PWSA leadership to “immediately develop and put forward a viable emergency plan to urgently remove all lead lines,” and on Peduto to reinstate a free water filter program offered last year that ran out of filters in less than six months.

A spokesperson for Peduto could not be reached for comment late Friday.

It's unclear precisely how many PWSA-served homes have private lead service lines — the stretch of piping that typically runs from a public sidewalk or street to a residential property.

Officials estimate that lead risks may be high in about 27 percent of its service area, or 17,000 homes. PWSA has been mining old property records and digging up streets in hopes of determining a more accurate estimate soon, Pickering said.

The authority has pledged to spend $44 million in ratepayer funds on replacing 2,000 lead service lines this year.

“While encouraging commitments have been made by PWSA to begin to replace a small number of lead lines annually, this falls far short of the urgent action required to ensure no child in our city is being subjected to an invisible toxin that risks lifelong harm,” Wagner said. “The fact is that no level of lead in our water is safe, and this problem will only be solved when the lead lines are gone.”

PWSA samples have exceeded the federal threshold since summer 2016, prompting an EPA mandate to replace 7 percent of lead lines a year until the samples test below the federal threshold at least two consecutive times.

Every six months since, PWSA has sent sample test kits to about 200 homes that it suspects have lead service lines or plumbing. In July, the samples tested were just enough to a meet the key federal threshold of 15 ppb.

“It's been alarming for two years,” Wagner spokesman Lou Takacs said. “The testing is variable, but one thing that has not changed is that it's alarmingly high, and really the risk is still there as long as these lead service lines are there — not every time they turn the faucet on, but there's always that risk. That's what we really need to move aggressively toward changing.”

Peduto and PWSA leaders have been similarly alarmed for years and working on a series of solutions to PWSA's operational, financial and other challenges, said Pickering. He said PWSA officials do not expect to see significant reductions in lead found in the samples until enacting a material change to water treatment — and plans are in the works to do just that later this year.

On Jan. 2, PWSA presented state regulators with the preliminary findings of a report suggesting that the use of orthophosphate could be “a promising solution to reduce lead across the entire water system.” A final report is due in March, and PWSA hopes to institute the treatment changes soon after, Pickering said.

The raw sample data on lead and copper levels reported by PWSA is available at www.drinkingwater.state.pa.us.

Pickering said the official results will be released in coming weeks.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or on Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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