kitchen sink
Photo by TH Carlisle.

After years of unwelcome headlines about lead in Pittsburgh’s drinking water, major progress is being made, according to data released by the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) at a press conference on Wednesday. Recent rounds of sampling show that Pittsburgh now has the lowest levels of lead in its water in recent history, thanks to an aggressive schedule of replacing lead lines and adding orthophosphate to the treatment process.

PWSA reported its compliance testing for lead came in at 5.1 parts per billion (ppb), well under the EPA action level of 15 ppb. In 2016, the level was way above the compliance threshold at 22 ppb. It was tested at 10 ppb six months ago.

“These two consecutive rounds now place PWSA within the lead and copper rule for the first time since 2016,” stated Will Pickering, PWSA’s executive director. “It’s been a long time coming. It’s a demonstration that orthophosphate is working. This is the additive that we began in April of 2019 in the drinking water system. It’s used in other cities effectively and it’s proven better over time and coats these lead service lines and prevents the water from actually touching the lead pipes.”

PWSA has replaced more than 7,400 public lead service lines and more than 4,700 private lead service lines throughout the city. They are on track to replace all lead service lines by 2026.

“We’ve basically taken on a century’s worth of investment and decided that we are going to solve it in a decade,” said Mayor Bill Peduto. “And, to the people of Pittsburgh, this is something we should be very proud of. We now have the cleanest drinking water that we’ve had since 1998, and by all indications, it’s only going to get better. And by 2026, we will no longer have lead in the system. It will be completely removed out.”

This progress was made possible by the Lead Service Line Replacement program started in 2018. A change in state law helped make it possible to replace private side lead lines at no cost to homeowners while replacing public side lines.

So far in 2019-2020 — the most productive year for PWSA — more than four times as many lead service lines (3,200-plus) have been replaced than are required by state regulations (see chart below).

Year-to-year comparison of required replacements versus actual replacements.

“Our Community Lead Response programs go over and beyond to protect the health and safety of our customers,” said Pickering. “With each lead line we replace, we are reducing potential exposure to lead, and improving service reliability.”

In 2020 and early 2021, state funding in the amount of $65 million provided by PENNVEST will support the replacement of more than 15 miles of aging distribution pipes and more than 2,000 service lines.

PWSA’s lead line replacement program has prioritized the most vulnerable neighborhoods, using data about blood lead levels in children, and the number of children younger than six years old, as well as the number of women of childbearing age. This part of the lead line replacement plan will stay the same going forward.

“Today’s a good day for Pittsburgh, and it would never happen without the partnership that occurred in Harrisburg, without the willingness of the representatives and the senators behind me and the governor to be willing to understand that Pittsburgh was worth investing in, and working to create a model that other older communities can now follow, to be able to get the lead out of their systems as well,” said Peduto.

For more information about Community Lead Response, go here.

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.