Two years after Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner declared our water quality to be “a public health crisis,” lead levels in Pittsburgh’s water remain above EPA action levels.

Relief may be on the way.

At the end of January, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewage Authority (PWSA) broke ground on a new water treatment facility in Highland Park. The two-building complex, located within the Sycamore Grove Shelter, will supply orthophosphate chemicals into the water from the nearby reservoir.

“Constructing this facility and adding orthophosphate to our water system will reduce lead levels across our water system,” said PWSA Executive Director Robert Weimar.

PWSA officially announced the construction on Feb. 12, one week after signing a settlement with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission to adopt new guidelines for how the utility will carry out its ongoing lead remediation efforts. In addition to rules for pipe replacements, the settlement requires PWSA to expand access to free water filters and increase the overall transparency of the effort.

“Even though we’re aggressively replacing thousands of lead lines, it will take years to replace all of them,” said Weimar. “In the immediate term, we will begin applying orthophosphate to address high lead levels by using this effective and widely-accepted treatment method.”

Orthophosphate chemicals coat the inside of water service lines, creating a barrier between the water itself and the piping materials. For cities like Pittsburgh, dealing with aging lead pipes that are corroding into the local water supply, the chemicals can significantly reduce water pollution levels.

According to a press release, the facility will begin treating the water from the reservoir by the end of March. Construction of additional access points in Highland Park, the Aspinwall Water Treatment Plant and the Bruecken Pump Station will also begin in the next several weeks.

While the PWSA’s ongoing efforts to solve the city’s lead crisis have generated controversy, this particular announcement was cheered by local advocacy groups.

“While they replace lead service lines around the city, it’s critical that they find more immediate solutions like treating the water with orthophosphates and providing filters to people that need them,” said Aly Shaw, an organizer with Pittsburgh UNITED. “We’re very happy to see this.”

But even with the state settlement and new treatment plan, the PWSA’s legal woes are likely to continue for much for the next year. On Feb. 1, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro formally charged the water authority with endangering the health of 161 households by not properly informing them of when the agency replaced nearby lead water lines.

While Pittsburgh UNITED has often been openly critical of PWSA, they as well other environmental groups have also pointed out that the city’s lead crisis stems from reckless, and in some cases illegal, decisions made by the French multi-national consultants Veolia, who managed the city’s water lines from July 2012 to December 2015.

“Pittsburgh’s lead crisis started after the previous chemical to treat our water for lead was illegally switched under Veolia’s management,” said Shaw. “For two years, we’ve worked with local residents to make sure that Veolia is held accountable for their mismanagement of PWSA and their role in the city’s lead crisis. We’d like to see the Attorney General’s office do the same, and place blame where it belongs.”

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.