PWSA ordered to replace lead service lines after elevated levels found in drinking water
July 13, 2016 12:00 AM
David Donahoe, PWSA interim executive director.
By Anya Litvak / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The state Department of Environmental Protection has ordered the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority to start a program to replace its lead water lines following elevated test results released Tuesday.
The DEP previously ordered PWSA to conduct testing after the state agency learned that the water authority switched the chemical it uses to control corrosion on its pipelines without notifying the state, and then switched again two years later, also without telling the DEP.
The state agency is looking into the possibility that the switch, from soda ash to caustic soda, exacerbated lead levels in drinking water, although David Donahoe, PWSA interim executive director, said Tuesday that would be hard to track.
Lead levels are sampled every three years and they have been going up since 2001, he said, because of aging infrastructure that corrodes and leaches lead into the pipes.
Because the PWSA didn’t tell the DEP it would be making the switch, the DEP didn’t have a chance to order baseline testing. So assessing changes with no starting point is a challenge, Mr. Donahoe said.
He noted that the water authority is currently testing five different chemicals to determine which anti-corrosion agent is best suited for its system, something that hasn’t been done in two decades.
The DEP issued an order in April requiring PWSA to test 100 homes with known or suspected lead pipes. The results of those tests, released this week, indicate that 17 percent exceeded the federal standard of 15 parts per billion.
When more than 10 percent of samples are higher than the standard, it triggers corrective actions including creating a complete inventory of all lead service lines and developing a program to replace them at a rate of at least 7 percent each year. That is what the DEP has ordered the authority to do, in addition to conducting another round of testing by the end of the year.
The pipeline inventory will be the biggest challenge, Mr. Donahoe said.
“We don't have such a census. We have some paper records. We started a couple of months ago trying to come up with it,” but the information is hard to come by, he said.
The census and repair work apply only to authority-owned lead service lines that connect to customer-owned service lines that carry water into the home.
DEP spokesman John Poister said the agency hopes that as the PWSA informs customers of their replacement plans, homeowners will piggyback on the effort and replace their own.
The PWSA has already started repairing service lines with a pilot project in Lawrenceville, where it is encouraging customers to swap out their lines at the same time.
“We have this street and sidewalk dug up anyhow,” Mr. Donahue said, which would cut the customer’s expense down to the pipeline cost and installation. “And then we’ll do the restoration.”
PWSA also has to develop a public education program by Sept. 1.
The water authority offers customers free testing kits and reports the aggregated results on its website. Of the nearly 400 voluntary tests performed to date, 5 percent showed lead levels above the federal standard.
Whatever lead is detected at customers’ homes isn’t coming from the treatment plant, Mr. Donahoe said. The consensus is that it leaches from service lines and, to a lesser extent, from lead plumbing inside homes.
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