Photo by Kate McCarthy / Flickr

Last week some 100,000 Pittsburgh residents were advised to flush and boil their water due to low chlorine levels that could allow a parasite like Giardia to flourish.

The problem was fixed, no parasites were found and the boil advisory was lifted a few days later: no one was hurt.

But the water still wasn’t entirely safe to drink, at least for city homes believed to have a lead service line. Since June the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) has recommended that those homes, approximately 16,000-20,000 of them dispersed across the city, flush their pipes before drinking, cooking or preparing formula whenever they have not been used for several hours.

June 2016 was when PWSA was cited for exceeding the action level for lead in water set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency, and now the PWSA, which supplies water to nearly 80,000 city homes, is under a federal mandate to replace 7 percent of those lead service lines annually, beginning with 1,500 by June 2017.

This is a lofty undertaking for any city agency, but made even more difficult since PWSA does not know where the majority of them are: most lead service lines were installed before World War II, and the records PWSA inherited are just as old.

On Thursday, City Council unanimously called for the state Attorney General to investigate the PWSA; Friday, Mayor Bill Peduto called for the formation of an advisory council to look into restructuring the PWSA, possibly through a public-private partnership.

Even Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, which is tasked with oversight of the PWSA, was warned by the EPA late last year that they “failed to meet the federal requirement for on-site review of water system operations and maintenance capability” and they could lose their primacy, or self-regulation, in enforcing the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, which could potentially cost the state $100 million from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund.

Amidst so many unknowns, some city residents, frustrated with a lingering public health problem, have taken the matters into their own hands to educate and empower their neighbors and their city to take action against an invisible neurotoxin and invisible crisis whose extent is not fully known.


Crystal Fortwangler has taught in the field of sustainability for the past 10 years, most recently as an assistant professor at Chatham University. In September, she received the results from the voluntary lead test she submitted to PWSA: Her water tested at 24.8 parts per billion, well over the EPA “action level” of 15 ppb.

Angered and emboldened, Fortwangler partnered with the Thomas Merton Center as a scholar-in-residence to provide communities with a strategy on how to empower themselves by requesting free PWSA water tests en masse.

The thinking goes like this: If the bulk of the tests come back with notable lead levels, PWSA will know a problem exists and may prioritize lead service line replacement in that particular neighborhood.

If the tests reflect low lead levels, even better. Regardless, residents will know if they are at risk and will have educated themselves and can in turn educate others.

Fortwangler and others plan to start locally in their own neighborhood of South Squirrel Hill this February and then work with other community groups to expand to other neighborhoods in town, especially those where childhood blood levels are already elevated, in the hopes that those service lines will be replaced first.

“If you already have a neighborhood that has kids testing with elevated [blood lead level] results close to 50%, why wouldn’t you focus your efforts on making sure those kids aren’t exposed anymore to lead that’s in their drinking water?”

The hope is that their campaign can serve as a template that other neighborhoods model for their own grassroots outreach campaigns. “Phone calls to your City Councilperson are much easier when you have 30 neighbors saying, ‘What’s going on?’” says Fortwangler.

Another community activist, Dana Dolney, executive director of Friends of the Harmed, an advocacy group for those negatively affected by fracking, is working on a community plan to conduct the same type of “en masse” testing in Polish Hill.

“We need to get people educated,” says Dolney. “Hopefully this will inspire people to get off their butts and do something.”

Will Pickering, PWSA manager of external affairs, acknowledges that service line replacement efforts necessarily must be based on where PWSA knows lead service lines exist. That can be determined through curb box inspections that physically examine the underground pipe or gleaned from test data: Pickering says that a home with high lead levels more than likely has a lead service line.

NEXTpittsburgh has obtained the results of voluntary lead tests collected so far by PWSA. The results, broken down by zip code, show that some neighborhoods are far more likely to request voluntary sampling than others. For example, 25 percent of all voluntary tests in the city originated from the 15217 zip code of Squirrel Hill and Greenfield.

Of the 3,057 homes that were tested, 43.4 percent had some level of detectable lead; 11.3 percent had levels over the EPA’s 15 ppb action limit; 70 of those came in at 30 ppb or above.

(The 15 ppb limit is not a threshold for public health and no amount of lead is safe for human consumption. Children under 6 and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning. Even low levels of lead can result in behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia.)

PWSA has not yet put the voluntary lead test data on their website but hopes to do so by the end of the year without providing specific home addresses due to privacy concerns. PWSA spokesman Pickering says that the authority has yet to find concentrations of lead service lines in one particular area of the city or even within one particular block as homeowners and the PWSA have replaced service lines over the past decades.

Regardless of where the service lines are, PWSA is mandated to replace only the portion of the service line that extends from the water main to the property line; the remaining section that enters into the home is the property owner’s responsibility.

Pickering says the PWSA is working with the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh to determine if they can develop a low-interest loan program for homeowners interested in financing a lead service line replacement on the private side, and that hopefully something will be in place by March when the weather warms and PWSA starts ramping up replacement of the lead service linesthey must replace 1,500 by June to meet the 7 percent EPA mandate.

The idea that homeowners must pay to replace their portion of the service line does not sit well with T. Rashad Byrdsong, founder of Homewood’s Community Empowerment Association (CEA).

“How can you ask someone with a median income of $10,000 to take out a small interest loan that will compound the social issues that impact them already?” (Census estimates show that about 1,300 households in the 15208 zip code, which includes most of Homewood, most of North Point Breeze and half of Point Breeze, make less than $15,000 income annually.)

The cost of replacing a service line can vary greatly depending on the length of the line and the degree of difficulty that goes into its excavation. Joel Pomerantz of Squirrel Hill spent “about $5,000” to have his lead service line replaced after his lead test came back at 58 ppb. Another homeowner, Mark Knobil, of Polish Hill, spent around $4,000 to have his line replaced.

To educate the community and provide information on the dangers of lead, the CEA has organized a town hall educational forum in Homewood for February 21. (The PWSA has been hosting community meetings on lead in water and has two meetings scheduled for February, one in Northside and one in Millvale.)

Brian Conway is a writer and photographer whose articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and local publications. In his free time, he operates Tripsburgh. Brian lives in the South Side.