Pittsburgh has had lead pipes for a very long time, but it hasn’t had a widespread problem with lead in its drinking water until recently. The reason why levels have climbed over the federal limit is still under investigation. But most observers agree that the decision to switch to a cheaper, less-effective treatment chemical likely played a major role. (Photo: Steve Johnson via Flickr)
Inside the bowels of the Pittsburgh Water Treatment Plant, what looks like a row of high-quality science fair entries hums with pipes, tanks and motors. Gina Cyprych points to a plywood structure with the number “12” on it. It’s rigged with a loop of plastic and metal pipes.
“The metallic-colored one is a lead pipe. It looks grey,” says Cyprych, the acting head of water quality for the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA), which provides 300,000 people with their drinking water.
LISTEN: What’s Behind Pittsburgh’s Lead Problem?
Cyprych is overseeing an experiment the authority is running to see which chemicals work best to keep lead out of the city’s drinking water. Right now the lab is running water through these brand-new pipes (yes, you can still buy new lead pipes) to get them to resemble the decades-old pipes that distribute water throughout the city.
“Those pipes have been in the ground since the ’50s — even the ’20s. So they’ve been stabilized for a long time. This is just helping us get a more accurate representation of what’s in our system.”
PWSA has to run these tests because the lead in its drinking water exceeded federal action limits last June. The federal limit for the 90th percentile of tests is 15 parts per billion. PWSA’s June 2016 tests showed a 90th percentile level of 22 parts per billion.
The water leaving the authority’s drinking water plant is basically lead-free. But it flows through the city’s decades-old water system. A quarter of homes in the system use lead service lines, which have been banned for decades but remain in place. The key for PWSA and other water providers is to keep the lead in these pipes from leaching into the drinking water. To do this, water utilities add special anti-corrosive chemicals to encourage the build-up of protective mineral coatings inside pipes.
“It’s going to take a long time for us to get all the lead pipes out of the system,” Cyprych says. “So what do we do in the meantime to make sure that the public is safe?”
For decades, the authority used soda ash to encourage this kind of build-up inside its pipes. Soda ash — sodium carbonate — makes water less acidic and, therefore, less corrosive. But Leonard Casson, an engineer at the University of Pittsburgh who studies drinking water systems, says it also deposits a kind of shell on the inside of the pipes. He was part of a group that — back in the 1990s — decided PWSA should use soda ash to prevent corrosion.
But in 2012, the authority entered into a contract with the engineering services firm Veolia to manage its operations. PWSA spokesman Will Pickering says after Veolia took over, staffing in the authority’s water quality division dropped from 10 employees to just six. Then, in 2014, while it was under contract with Veolia, PWSA stopped using soda ash as an anti-corrosive agent and started using caustic soda. Caustic soda is approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for corrosion control, but Leonard Casson says it’s not as good as soda ash.
“It was never envisioned as a long-term solution,” he says. “A day or two, a week — that’s one thing. [But it’s] not a long-term solution because it would remove that coating that had been built up since the ’90s.”
Unlike soda ash, caustic soda does not leave a solid residue inside pipes.
“To be perfectly blunt, caustic soda is not the preferred chemical,” says Bob Weimar, PWSA’s interim director of engineering. “So I would be surprised if it didn’t have some kind of impact on the quality of that lining.”
Lead levels in Pittsburgh’s drinking water have been rising steadily since 2007. Recent tests have found lead levels as high as 22 parts per billion – far higher than the federal limit of 15 parts per billion.
PWSA officials told the DEP the change was made because of an “obsolete” soda ash feeder — and because caustic soda was cheaper. Under the terms of Veolia’s contract, the company took home half of any cost savings it realized while managing the authority.
Casson thinks this drive to save money — the underlying reason for the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan — is what caused Pittsburgh’s lead levels to spike. “They made that choice, and that choice is what led to the lead issues that Pittsburgh water and sewer authority is dealing with now.”
Veolia did not agree to an interview, but in an email, a spokesperson says it was not responsible for the switch to caustic soda. The company says it would never prioritize cost savings over public health, and that the decision ultimately rested with the PWSA board of directors and the city of Pittsburgh.
The city’s response?
“I’d say that’s a matter that’s presently in dispute as part of our litigation,” says Kevin Acklin, Mayor Bill Peduto’s Chief of Staff.
The city fired Veolia and is now suing the company. Acklin says Veolia employees comprised the upper management at the authority and thus were responsible for decisions they made — including the one to change chemicals.
“This was not only a decision the board didn’t make, it was a decision that the board was not informed about,” Acklin says.
PWSA boardmembers weren’t the only ones that didn’t know about the change. DEP regulators only learned of the switch to caustic soda because the authority announced it was switching back to soda ash in the wake of the lead crisis in Flint.
“Naturally we asked the question, ‘You’re switching back to soda ash? You should have always been on soda ash,'” says Ronald Schwartz, assistant director of the DEP’s southwest regional office in Pittsburgh.
The DEP issued a notice of violation to PWSA for changing chemicals without a permit. The violation meant PWSA had to re-test for lead. When it did, 17 out of 100 homes tested exceeded the federal limit of 15 parts per billion. PWSA is now being required to inventory its lead service lines and begin to replace them. It will also need to test its water every six months.
One man who watched all this from afar is Stanley States. He was PWSA’s longtime water quality manager, until Veolia moved him to a desk job and he eventually retired.
“That change in treatment chemical would never have occurred if I were there,” States says. “And certainly if we did, we would have contacted the state. That change wasn’t a good change to make as far as lead is concerned,” States says.
Complicating all of this is the fact that Pittsburgh’s lead levels have climbed steadily since 2007. The age of the pipes is one factor. But States says it could also be tied to changes the authority made in its chlorination process, a measure it took to meet stricter federal water quality standards that recently took effect. He thinks, over time, that could have changed the chemical environment of the water and freed up more lead.
Either way, States faults Veolia for not paying enough attention to lead levels, which by 2013, were at 14.8 parts per billion — just under the federal threshold of 15 parts per billion.
“They didn’t pay enough attention to what was happening when the numbers started going up,” States says. “[They] should have been on that and they missed it.”
CORRECTION: In the radio version of this story, it was stated that most of Pittsburgh’s water fails to meet EPA lead standards. It would be more accurate to say that the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority is in violation of the EPA lead standard. In its latest tests, 30 out of 149 samples tested by PWSA exceeded the federal limit of 15 parts per billion.