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Lead levels in the Pittsburgh region’s tap water took the national spotlight at a community roundtable held on Thursday.

The roundtable, held by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was the first in a series of 10 virtual events across the country to talk about updating the federal Lead and Copper Rule for drinking water. 

LISTEN to Julie Grant discuss her reporting with Kara Holsopple

In a video on the agency’s website, EPA administrator Michael Regan discussed the public health risks of lead. 

“In children, it can cause irreversible and lifelong health effects, including decreased IQ, focus, and academic achievement. Lead is also disproportionately present in communities of color and low-income communities,” Regan said. 

During the roundtable, Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, executive director of Women for a Healthy Environment, explained that her group did a survey of water systems in Allegheny County in 2019, and found that 80 percent of those that participated had detected lead in their drinking water. 

All children in the county are supposed to have their blood tested for lead by their first birthday, up to age 6. According to Naccarati-Chapkis, that’s how they know that approximately 500 children per year are found with elevated levels of lead. Lead can be from a variety of sources. 

She also said that children of color have a higher rate of elevated blood lead levels (EBLLs) than their white counterparts.

“The percentage of children of color with confirmed EBLLs, of those that have been tested, is 6.3 times greater than the percentage of white children [who have confirmed EBLLs], which is very significant,” she said. “So we know communities of color are disproportionately impacted.”

Duquesne Mayor Nickole Nesby told EPA about the challenges of her majority Black community, outside of Pittsburgh. “The economic conditions of the city are that of a third world country,” she said. “The population is approximately 5600, with 80% living below 110% of the federal poverty line; 33% of our school aged children are medically diagnosed with learning disabilities.” 

On average, children tested in Duquesne for blood lead levels have an average of 7 micrograms per deciliter, Nesby said. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, there is no safe level of lead in children’s blood, and it identifies children with 5 micrograms per deciliter as much higher than most children’s levels. 

But Dusquene doesn’t have the trained staff nor the $15 million it expects it would cost to replace its lead water pipes and service lines.

“At the end of the day, the cost measures outweigh anything we can possibly do in this area without financial assistance, which means with 80% below the federal poverty line, it’s very hard to match grant funding which could be available to us,” Nesby said.

How Federal Politics Affect Local Lead Pipe Remediation

President Biden’s American Jobs Plan includes $45 billion to replace lead lines nationwide, which is the biggest federal effort so far on this issue.

In March, the Biden administration suspended the Trump EPA’s update to the Lead and Copper Rule, which governs this issue. Until last December, the rule hadn’t been updated in 30 years. 

The Trump administration’s new rule required public water systems to inventory and publicize the location of lead service lines, but also gave utilities more time to replace those water lines.

Advocacy groups called the changes weak, and are challenging the Trump-era rule in court. 

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority has been working toward replacing 7 percent of publicly owned lead lines a year, with the goal of completing them all by 2026. This was in line with the old rule, before Trump’s rewrite, which actually reduced the requirements for pipe replacements to 3 percent annually. 

The EPA is now holding these community roundtables, saying it wants more public input before a new rule takes effect, especially from communities most at-risk.

At the meeting, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto mentioned that the city has already made significant investments in replacing lead lines, and has done so at the expense of other programs. He asked EPA to consider a flexible system, that’s not one-size-fits-all, as communities work with the federal government to continue fixing lead water lines.