On a hazy morning on Pittsburgh’s Morningside, a work crew digs beneath Radium Street, a two-lane way hugging a hillside. The crew has been at it for an hour or so, first using a backhoe to cut through layers of asphalt, cement, and clay. The work is slow — they have to be careful not to cut other utility lines underneath.
At the bottom of a five foot pit, the crew’s foreman, Mark McClafferty, is now using a shovel, uncovering one last scoop of dirt before finding what the crew’s been looking for.
“It’s lead,” he says, pointing out a section of grey pipe in the clay.
He points to the tell tale sign of lead pipes–large round lumps where different sections of pipe join together–almost like the pipes are swollen.
“That’s where they heated it up and melted the lead together,” explains McClafferty, a foreman for Frank J. Zottola Construction, which is performing the work for the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA).
LISTEN: “Pittsburgh Struggles to Fix Its Lead Problem”
The crew is looking for lead service lines, the “lateral” pipes that connect water mains in streets with homes. Because the water authority failed its lead test in 2016, it’s mapping all 71,000 of its connections, in the hopes of eventually replacing all lead lines.
Each service line into a house has two parts. One part is owned by the water authority, and the other by the property owner.
The connection the crew has found shows lead pipes on both the city’s half and the homeowner’s. But instead of replacing the pipes, the city now has to just cover them back up.
“We just backfill it and leave it,” said Manda Metzger, a PWSA engineer overseeing the dig. “If they prefer to change their line–otherwise we can’t do a partial replacement.”
Since its lead tested at 22 parts per billion (ppb) last year, well above the federal action threshold of 15 ppb, the water authority has been under state mandate to replace 7 percent of its lead lines. That’s about 1,400 a year.
Until June, the water authority had been doing ‘partial’ replacements, replacing public lead pipes but leaving the private ones.
But the authority stopped that practice when it found doing only one side of the line can actually make the problem worse, says Bob Weimar, interim executive director of the PWSA.
Weimar says there’s a coating inside the pipes that keeps lead from getting into water. Construction can knock some of that coating off on old pipes.
“What we’ve found is that the lining is subject to being broken up as a result of just physical jostling,” he says. “And as a result you’re going to find some amount of this coating breaking off. It’s similar to what happens in a stream when you have a heavy rainstorm and it washes away debris that might have collected in the stream.”
When PWSA replaced only its side of the lead service line, lead levels spiked. One home had a reading nearly 100 times the federal action level.
Marc Edwards is a Virginia Tech scientist who helped first raise the alarms about Flint, Michigan’s lead issues. He says stopping partial line replacement was the right thing to do, but that doesn’t take away from Pittsburgh’s bigger problems with lead.
“Pittsburgh currently has amongst the highest levels in the United States for any major city,” he says.
But Pittsburgh isn’t alone. Many cities and rural areas face problems with lead. Pipes from as far back as the Civil War-era are buried all over the country, still carrying water into homes.
“Lead is the best known neurotoxin. It adversely affects every organ in the human body and its effects are irreversible,” Edwards says. The CDC says there is no safe level of lead in water. Edwards says the current federal threshold for lead in water–15 parts per billion–doesn’t go far enough.
The city’s lead levels were 14.8 parts per billion (ppb) in 2013, meaning that 10 percent of samples tested above that level. After a 2014 switch in corrosion-inhibiting chemicals, which keep lead out of water, lead levels went up in 2016.
Weimar says the increased lead levels also coincided with tougher testing standards.
The authority changed its chemical mixture back to its original formula, and its two most recent water tests showed decreasing lead levels: 18 ppb in December 2016 and 15 ppb in June.
For the hundreds of homes in Pittsburgh where there have been partial line replacements, the water authority is recommending residents flush their water lines before using them for drinking, and use pitcher-style lead filters.
Cory Riddle, of Pittsburgh’s Mt. Washington neighborhood, went a step further.
Riddle and his housemate installed a $200 water treatment system under their kitchen sink when they heard there may be lead in their water. Then the city did a partial lead line replacement on his street a few months ago.
His lead-removal system keeps his water clean, but he’s frustrated that he and his roommate had to install the system just to drink clean water.
“It’s pretty lousy to be honest. The half-baked effort of just replacing half of it and increasing lead content,” he says.
“You have all different levels just pointing their fingers in a million different directions, but no one actually getting down to the real work and doing the hard work of replacing the pipes.”
He knows removing the thousands of lead service lines will be a huge expense. The water authority’s initial estimate is $411 million, though it has since lowered that estimate. But Riddle says the city should have been more proactive with the problem.
“I guess I understand those limitations but I have to question why was it allowed to get to this level,” Riddle says.
That’s a question Allegheny County controller Chelsa Wagner has been asking, too. She says lead has become a hot potato between the various state and local agencies with a hand in Pittsburgh’s water.
“You have all different levels just pointing their fingers in a million different directions, but no one actually getting down to the real work and doing the hard work of replacing the pipes,” she says.
She thinks the city’s water authority is overestimating how much it would cost to replace all of its lead pipes. Wagner calculates that the city, which had its largest surplus in years in 2016 thanks to a real-estate boom and surging income taxes, could replace its lead lines in five years.
“That’s why I get so incredibly frustrated because it is very, very fixable. What we’re just lacking is the will to do it,” she says.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto says that’s not true. The city has given out close to 20,000 pitchers with lead filters in them. And Peduto is pushing to get a state law passed that will allow the water authority to replace private lead lines, with the homeowner paying a share of the cost.
Peduto says the next round of lead testing due by the end of the year is likely to comply with EPA limits. And when that happens, PWSA won’t be required to remove any more of its lead pipes. But Peduto says the water authority is planning to go ahead with a 10- to 12-year plan to remove those pipes, even if it isn’t required to by law.
“To be honest the system is antiquated and it won’t get better. We may be able to treat it. But the long term solution is to completely remove lead pipes from our water system,” says Peduto. “If we want to emerge as a 21st century city, it means we have to remove the lead out of our water system.”
From his porch on Radium Street, Kevin Edmonson watches the work crew dig for pipes on his street, as his granddaughters, Dream, 3, and Kersity, 6, play together.
The day the water authority’s digging crew came to his street was the first time Edmonson, a forklift operator at a local warehouse, says he’d heard about lead in the water. He says his family drinks bottled water, but uses the tap for cooking and bathing.
“I don’t use tap water,” he says. “I’m very cautious”
When the crew dug in front of his house, they found the private side of the pipe on his house was copper, and the public side was lead. So the water authority was able to replace the lead pipe.
In this instance, Edmonson is lucky. Thousands of other Pittsburghers will have to wait years to have their lead pipes replaced, though his would be removed in a matter of days.
“I’m excited for them to be changing it, and keep my family safe,” he says.
Photo at top: Chelsa Wagner, Allegheny County Controller, holds up a lead pipe removed from her house. Photo: Reid Frazier