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Lead levels in PWSA drinking water samples exceed EPA threshold

Aaron Aupperlee
| Tuesday, July 12, 2016, 2:54 p.m.
A water test for lead in 2016.
Tribune Review
A water test for lead in 2016.

Drinking water lead levels in Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority's service area exceeded a key federal regulatory threshold, the authority reported Tuesday.

Seventeen of the 100 water samples voluntarily collected from homes in May and June had lead levels greater than 15 parts per billion, a limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

PWSA's 90th percentile result, which will be reported to the EPA and included in annual water quality reports, was 22 parts per billion.

PWSA will have to notify customers of the test results, develop educational materials about the dangers of lead and how to make sure water is safe, test different methods of controlling lead corrosion and replace lead service lines it maintains. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection will oversee the work required of PWSA.

"This is a serious concern, and DEP will be working with PWSA to inform and educate consumers of the risks of lead in drinking water, and find solutions to reduce the lead levels in the water," acting DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said in a release. "The top priority is to return the system to below the action level as quickly as possible."

David Donahoe, interim executive director of PWSA, said the test results do not mean that the authority has violated federal regulations regarding lead levels.

"It does trigger other requirements," Donahoe said during a news conference. "This information does confirm that where lead service lines exist there is a slightly higher percentage of incidents of additional lead in the water."

Donahoe encouraged anyone in PWSA's service area who doesn't know if they have lead plumbing or lead in their water to have their water tested. PWSA provides tests to customers at no charge.

Five percent of nearly 400 customers who have requested tests have shown results above 15 parts per billion.

Donahoe said lead levels have concerned him since he started at PWSA in March.

In May, he directed the authority's board of directors to take steps to reduce lead in the water. Some of the steps – including testing various anti-corrosion chemicals to keep lead from leaching from pipes – will now be required. The DEP will also require PWSA to identify all lead service lines the authority owns and begin a program to replace at least 7 percent of the lines each year. Donahoe said the authority doesn't know the extent of the lead service lines and is conducting a survey to identify them.

Alex Thomson, chairman of PWSA's board, did not return calls for comment.

"These results were expected, and the PWSA is already at work addressing the issues and communicating with residents, as the DEP has requested," Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said in email to the Trib. "All this means is the authority has to follow some actions to address lead, which it is already doing."

PWSA will conduct another round of testing in December because the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection cited the authority in April for changing anti-corrosion chemicals without following proper procedures.

Recent DEP tests showed water leaving the PWSA treatment plant had no trace of lead. Lead enters the system as water flows through old lead pipes or pipes with soldering that contains lead.

The EPA requires water providers to test for lead levels in water every three years. If 10 percent of all the samples test above 15 parts per billion, the water providers must take additional action.

PWSA's 90th percentile results have crept up in the last 15 years. In 2001, the tests showed a level of 6 parts per billion. By 2013, that level had risen to 14.8 parts per billion.

The results of the 2016 testing were highly anticipated after the 2013 were just below the 15 parts per billion threshold, which increased scrutiny of lead in public drinking water in the wake of the crisis in Flint, Mich.

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