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A rule change designed to reduce the amount of lead in drinking water proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency this week could have sweeping impacts on both the safety and cost of drinking water in the Pittsburgh area.

The proposed rule would make water systems take a more proactive approach to prevent lead contamination, rather than responding reactively when lead levels exceed the EPA’s limits. Lead is a neurotoxin that can impair cognitive development and scientists say there is no safe level of exposure.

One of the largest sources of lead contamination in drinking water is lead service lines that connect homes to the main water lines on their street. In the past, water systems had to replace around 3% of their lead service lines but only after their drinking water had tested above 15 parts per billion (ppb) in the worst 10% of their samples.

Under the proposed rule change, every water system that has lead service lines will have to create a plan to replace 10% of those lines per year until they are completely eliminated in 10 years.

“These toxic pipes are the single largest source of lead-water contamination for millions of Americans,” said David Masur, executive director for the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center.

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Lead line replacements cost thousands of dollars each, and the cost of the replacements will ultimately have to be paid for by rate payers. The 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law set aside $15 billion specifically to help water systems pay for lead line replacements. The EPA estimates the total cost of replacing all lead service lines will be between $20 and $30 billion.

The proposed rule change also lowers the threshold that would require water systems to take additional action, from 15 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion.

How Pittsburgh water systems compare

Of the four water systems that serve customers in the city of Pittsburgh, only Wilkinsburg-Penn Joint Water Authority currently exceeds the proposed new lead standard. The authority’s drinking water tested at 14 parts per billion in 2022 and if the rule changes go into effect the authority would have to take additional actions to come into compliance. The authority didn’t respond to attempts to reach them by email and phone.

The rule change would require any of these systems that exceed 10 ppb more than once to provide water filters to its residents.

About 15% of Allegheny County’s 36 drinking water systems would exceed the proposed new threshold, according to Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, the executive director of the nonprofit Women for a Healthy Environment, which conducted a county-wide study in 2021.

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority will not have to make many changes as a result of the rule changes, according to Mora McLaughlin, a construction project manager for PWSA. That’s because PWSA has already created an inventory of lead lines across the city and replaced 10,000 lead services lines. But about a third of Allegheny County’s water system haven’t yet done an inventory of their lead lines, according to Women for a Healthy Environment. Under the new rule, that would be required.

PWSA developed its lead line replacement program after its drinking water tested above the EPA’s 15 ppb threshold in 2016. PWSA has since changed its corrosion control additive and PWSA’s drinking water most recently tested under 4 ppb earlier this year.

“A lot of these revisions are things that, in building our program over the last seven or so years, we’ve made part of our policy at PWSA,” McLaughlin said. “So we’re pretty confident that we’re going to be meeting most of these requirements.”

PWSA is currently replacing “hundreds if not thousands” of lead lines per year, McLauglin said. PWSA’s stated goal is to replace all of the roughly 8,000 remaining lead service lines by 2026, if they can identify funding, she said.

In part because of its aggressive program to replace lead service lines, PWSA has raised rates steadily over the past six years, including a proposed 16% increase for next year that would cover its drinking water, sewage and stormwater programs. The average customer will pay $100 per month for PWSA service next year and more than $150 per month when charges for ALCOSAN are included.

PWSA has received more than $667 million in low-interest loans and grants from the state of Pennsylvania since 2018, a large portion of which has been designated for lead service line replacements. And part of its $37.3 million award earlier this month came from funds provided to the state through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The rule changes would require PWSA to begin testing for lead in schools and daycare centers for the first time, which McLaughlin said PWSA was planning to start next year.

Changes for lead testing

The proposed rule changes also set more stringent requirements for how water systems test for lead. Now, drinking water providers will have to test both the first and fifth liter of water in houses with known lead service lines, and then they will have to report the higher level. McLaughlin said that PWSA was aware that these new requirements were coming and implemented this new testing method already earlier this year and didn’t see much difference in how much lead was in the water.

Gary Lobaugh, a spokesperson for Pennsylvania American Water, said in an email that around 5% of its customers in Allegheny County have lead service lines and that the utility plans to publish a map in January. Although Labaugh said its experts are reviewing the proposed rule changes, in general he said American Water supports replacing all lead service lines over time. Lobaugh didn’t respond to a question about whether the company had already begun to replace lead service lines.

“Customer-requested lead service line replacements will be grouped by geographic location and undertaken when the number of customer requests in a given location allows the company to realize reasonable economies of scale,” Lobaugh said. “The company strives to maintain the wait time following a customer request to less than one year.”

Westview Water Authority didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Concerns remain for vulnerable populations

Still, though, some local clean water advocates say the EPA proposal does not go far enough.

Masur with PennEnvironment criticized the proposed rule changes for not requiring schools to filter out lead from their drinking water. School buildings didn’t have to comply with previous regulations that eliminated lead fixtures and pipes in schools until 2014, Masur said. And that means kids, who are the most vulnerable to lead exposure, will still be at risk even after lead service lines are replaced, he said.

“Unfortunately, there is ample data showing that the threat of lead contamination in schools doesn’t only occur from lead service lines,” Masur said. “but also from pipes running through school buildings, valves, lead solder joints, and even components in school drinking fountains themselves.”

Masur said there is a bill in the Pennsylvania Senate right now that would require and provide funding for schools to replace their water fountains with filtered water fountains like those found in airports.

Naccarati-Chapkis, of Women for a Healthy Environment, said her organization has tested more than 200 schools across Allegheny County, and that nearly every school has at some point shown at least one positive test for some lead in the drinking water. She thinks it would make more sense to spend money on replacing all of the water fountains.

Gabriel Gray, an environmental justice organizer with Pittsburgh United, said the Our Water Campaign is beginning to work with Pittsburgh Public Schools to eliminate lead contamination in its buildings.

Gray is unhappy that the proposed rule changes allow for any legal amount of lead contamination when kids can be hurt at even low levels. She plans to reach out to the EPA to advocate for setting the allowable limit at 0 ppb.

Gray is also worried that the impact of the proposed rule changes could make the water unaffordable for low-income customers. “If we don’t have access to the water, then what good is clean water?” Gray said.

Gray has been working with the Wilkinsburg-Penn Joint Water Authority to try to change its rules for deciding which lead service lines should be replaced first. Gray thinks it should be based on “equity” rather than just looking for areas with the most lead lines.

The EPA is accepting comments about the proposed changes for 60 days, including a virtual public meeting on January 16. The EPA estimates that the finalized rule changes will go into effect in October of 2024.