Brian O'Neill: PWSA letters are clogged with nonsense
September 18, 2016 12:00 AM
Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press
President Barack Obama holds up a glass of water as he drinks after speaking at Flint Northwestern High School in Flint, Mich., in May 2016.
By Brian O'Neill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Crystal Fortwangler of Squirrel Hill had a sample of her tap water collected to test for lead at the end of May, and then waited nearly 15 weeks for the water authority to give her the bad news in the kind of cold, bureaucratic form letter that’s scarier for what it leaves out:
“... A lead level of 24.6 parts per billion (ppb) was reported for the sample collected on 5/31/2016 at your home. Your result was greater than the lead action level of 15 ppb. ... This sample represents the worst-case result that can be expected from your home.”
Ms. Fortwangler knows better than most how serious this is. She taught a sustainability and social justice course at Chatham University last spring that spent time examining the toxic waters and politics of Flint, Mich., and she started buying bottled water for herself and her 9-year-old daughter as soon as she received a form letter last spring about free lead testing here.
Since she posted her Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority warning letter on her neighborhood’s Nextdoor website, others have commented:
“I have been calling the lab for days just trying to get them to pick up the lab test kit.”
“I had my water test over 6 weeks ago — still no word.”
“I emailed them weeks ago, but still have not heard back.”
The PWSA is in way over its head. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has launched a task force to recommend ways to take down not just these lead levels, but the dangerous flooding of streets and the authority’s general inefficiency in getting its customers’ bills straight.
Until last week, even a “worst-case” lead-test finding was emailed by the PWSA. If people like Ms. Fortwangler called — as she did twice before receiving her email bombshell — they were told to “check your spam filter.”
A PWSA spokesman said its volume of requests for testing — nearly 5,000 as of Wednesday — has resulted in “some circumstances where a customer may experience an unintended delay.”
A new procedure calls for all results to go out within two to four days of the PWSA receiving the samples back from the lab. Those that are actionable will go out the next day, and all results will go out by courier rather than email.
That doesn’t account for how long it takes for the lab to do its work. And there’s zero evidence anyone at the PWSA does much more than yawn when it alerts a customer there’s too much lead in their water.
Its letter to Ms. Fortwangler says: “The action level is the concentration of a contaminant which, if exceeded, triggers treatment or other requirements which a water system must follow. If water from the tap does exceed the limit, then the utility must take certain steps to correct the problem.”
It doesn’t say what those steps are and, three paragraphs later, it contradicts itself and says “although your home’s drinking water levels were below the action level, if you are concerned ...”
Wow. Just wow. After the opening paragraph telling each customer the lead level in the water, it’s a form letter whether you’re in or out of the danger zone. It concludes by suggesting customers run their water for 15 to 30 seconds, use cold water for cooking and baby formula and, oh yeah, don’t boil it. That makes things worse.
Pretty much every belief a mother holds for protecting her children is wrong in this situation.
Ms. Fortwangler went to the doctor last week with her daughter for blood tests, and they weren’t in a high range for lead, maybe because they stopped drinking tap water in April. They’ll continue using bottled water for everything including brushing their teeth, and she’s looking into a $400 water filter to remove lead.
The authority tells all customers “your lead levels may be due to conditions unique to your home.” Its source water and its mainline don’t contain lead, but more than half the homes in the city are at least 75 years old and have lead in the plumbing. That’s the property owner’s responsibility.
But the PWSA also has lead service lines leading from the mainline to these private lines. Bernard R. Lindstrom, who started work as the authority’s interim executive director Monday, said the PWSA is now mandated by the state to replace those lead lines as far as the owner’s property line. There can be savings for homeowners if they pay to replace their own lines at the same time.
Mr. Lindstrom said he didn’t appreciate being yelled at when I suggested that information should be in the warning letter.
“We’ll see what we can do to improve our letter writing,” he said.
Right now the letters are about as helpful as a typed gurgling noise.
Brian O’Neill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1947 or on Twitter @brotheroneill
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