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Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority alters water treatment method

Aaron Aupperlee
| Friday, Jan. 22, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

Pittsburgh's water treatment plant operators decided this week to change their method of preventing lead contamination because of the water quality crisis in Flint, Mich., a spokesman said Friday.

Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority switched Thursday from caustic soda to soda ash to raise the pH of water and decrease the amount of lead potentially leached from pipes and solder.

Brendan Schubert, an authority spokesman, said PWSA had been studying a potential change “after investigating research that showed there might be a benefit to switching to soda ash.”

“We decided to switch this week after seeing the news of issues in Flint, Mich., in order to add one more layer of safety to our system,” Schubert wrote.

The decision to switch this week appeared to surprise Executive Director Jim Good, who said Tuesday that the authority was looking at changes to how it controls corrosion.

“I guess we were further along than I thought,” Good said after an authority board of directors meeting Friday.

Lead can enter the water supply as it passes through lead pipes or over lead solder found in service lines or home plumbing. PWSA has no lead pipes.

Schubert said the switch Thursday wasn't related to a report the same day in the Tribune-Review that highlighted test results from 2013 that indicated lead levels in Pittsburgh were precariously close to a federal threshold that would trigger a warning to water customers.

Tests in 2013, the most recent available, showed lead levels in the Pittsburgh utility's service area were 14.7 parts per billion, three-tenths shy of the limit of 15 parts per billion that would require PWSA to notify customers of lead levels, test annually and re-evaluate how it controls corrosion. The Environmental Protection Agency requires PWSA to test every three years.

“I don't doubt for one minute, as we speak, that the lead level is 16 ppb. It should be immediately tested again,” said Bob Skrzyniarz, 76, of Mt. Washington, who wants PWSA to test his water. “They should take it upon themselves as a responsible company to the people to retest it.”

PWSA will begin lead tests in the spring. Lead levels in Pittsburgh's water have risen consistently in the past 15 years. In 1999, tests showed a result of 2 parts per billion. Good said tests over time don't necessarily show a trend because different homes are tested every three years.

The EPA and the Centers for Disease Control say there is no safe level of lead. Zero lead in water is the EPA's goal, but the agency said it uses the 15 parts per billion threshold based on the “practical feasibility of reducing lead through controlling corrosion.”

When asked why PWSA didn't switch corrosion control methods after the 2013 tests, Good said it was because of the staff at the time. The authority's staff is now more focused on using data to make decisions, Good said Friday.

Good said the new staff at PWSA making decisions about how to control corrosion is the result of changes made by Veolia North America, a private company the authority hired to manage some of its operations. Veolia's contract with PWSA expired at the end of 2015.

Flint, where high lead levels in water triggered a federal state of emergency declaration, hired Veolia in 2014 to help the city improve its water quality. The company said in early 2015 that the water was safe.

In December, PWSA's board approved a 2016 budget that included $667,200 for caustic soda and $50,000 for soda ash. PWSA budgeted $450,000 for caustic soda and $400,000 for soda ash in 2015. In 2014, it budgeted $75,000 for caustic soda and $1 million for soda ash.

Both salts raise the pH of water.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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