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Pittsburgh's history of lead in our water, paint, and soil continues to have enormous repercussions for the area's public health. Hidden Poison is a series on lead problems and solutions, reported by public media partners 90.5 WESA News, Allegheny Front, PublicSource, and Keystone Crossroads. Read more at our website: hiddenpoison.org.

Eradicating Lead In Pittsburgh’s Drinking Water Means First Finding Lead Lines

A cluster of row homes along W. North Avenue on Pittsburgh North Side. PWSA will be inspecting roughly 400 curb boxes in many parts of the North Side over the next two weeks, part of an ongoing effort to map the city's water lines.

As part of an ongoing project to map all water lines in the city, two contract crews for the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority will inspect water line connections in parts of the North Side over the next two weeks.

An inspection begins with clearing out the curb box, where the two parts of a water service line—public and private—meet. Crews will then use a camera mounted on a pole to photograph the connection and determine what the pipes are made of.

The work helps PWSA prioritize water line replacement but also helps residents, said Will Pickering, the authority’s communications manager.

“A lot of individuals don’t know whether their home is served by a lead service line,” he said. “Oftentimes you can’t identify the pipe material by going in the basement and doing a visual inspection or hiring a plumber to do an inspection.”

Opening up curb boxes is the least disruptive to customers, said Pickering and isn’t expected to cause service interruptions. However, in roughly 40 percent of inspections, it’s unclear what the pipes are made of, and crews excavate the sidewalk to find out. That process costs $900 instead of $100.

Homeowners and tenants will receive inspection results through the mail. If the private side of the line is lead, residents are encouraged to take precautions: flushing water lines in the morning, purchasing a water filter rated to remove lead or replacing the line. Pickering said if a homeowner opts for replacement, PWSA will coordinate to do the same.

State and federal laws require the authority to replace 7 percent of lead lines each year. Meeting that requirement has gotten harder since May, when PSWA decided to stop partial replacement of lead lines: removing the public side while leaving the private. The practice has been linked to spikes of lead levels in drinking water. 

“To meet our replacement goals we need to find those instances where there is lead on the public side and a non-lead material on the private side,” said Pickering. “Which unfortunately are few and far between.”

Current law prohibits PWSA to remove homeowners’ side of the line because it puts the authority in competition with private contractors. A bill awaiting action in the statehouse would change that.

PWSA has completed 3,700 inspections since beginning the process in February. With approximately 70,000 water line connections in the authority's service area, the authority expects to complete the process in 2022. At the same time, PWSA staff have been digitizing 80,000 historic records to have a better idea of where lead lines might be. Pickering said that project will be completed by the end of the year. 

The authority initially believed those lines would cluster in “hot spots” but Pickering said lead lines are more or less evenly distributed throughout the city.

(Photo via Paul McCarthy / Flickr)

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