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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:

PWSA Aims To Replace 2,100 Lead Lines in 2018, Will Pay For Residential Side

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
A crew fixes a water main at Penn Avenue and Fisk Street in this Jan. 19 photo.

It’s going to be a very busy construction season for the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. By the end of 2018, the authority must replace 2,100 lead service lines and aims to conduct 15,000 curb box inspections.

PWSA contracted Michael Baker International for $2.8 million to do the inspections. Opening up a curb box allows crews to identify what the public and private sides of a water line are made of without having to dig holes all over the city.

“[Curb box inspections] are not foolproof,” said PWSA communications manager Will Pickering. “But we have found that they are cost-effective and they’re an additional layer of data that are very useful.”

The project will prioritize homes that lack historical records showing what the pipes are made of. Eventually the company will do work in each of the council districts, said Pickering.

“We’re trying to get a comprehensive picture of the entire city within our water service area,” he said. “We’re concentrating on areas we believe are likely to have lead. In part because these inspections are going to inform where we’ll perform future replacement work.”

A November 2017 consent order from the Department of Environmental Protection requires PWSA to create a pipe material inventory for the entire system and to reduce lead infrastructure by 7 percent—or 1,341 service lines—by the end of June. The authority can’t say for certain where or how many lead lines there are (hence the mandated inventory). But in the interim, PWSA estimated for DEP in September 2016 that likely 27 percent of the system was made of lead.

Because PWSA halted partial lead line replacements last year, the authority did not meet its 2017 replacement target of 1,341 lead lines. It'll have to finish the remaining 730 by June 30 and another 1,341 by Dec. 31, 2018.

In order to avoid partial line replacements, the authority will offer to replace the private side of any residential lead lines workers encounter. Previously, PWSA wasn’t permitted to make residential line replacements, but a change in the Municipal Authorities Act -- made last year -- allows it to do so. For 2018, PWSA’s board of directors approved a $44 million budget for public and private lead line replacement, said Pickering.

“We’ve mailed approximately 475 letters out to customers within the last month or so. We’ve heard back from about 40 percent of those customers, and they’ve agreed to a private lead line replacement associated with our work,” said Pickering. “But we’re wondering why we’re not hearing from the other 60 percent.”

Pickering encouraged homeowners to contact PWSA with any questions or concerns. While the authority will replace both the public and private sides of the line, as well as restore the sidewalk at no cost to the resident or property owner, it cannot commit to restoring any ornamental landscaping, retaining walls, stairs or driveways that may be impacted. Pickering said the contractors are incentivized to design around those kinds of features.

In addition, $1.8 million has been dedicated to replacing lead lines for low-income customers who meet the eligibility requirements, which is 250 percent of the federal poverty level. That project is being administered by Dollar Energy Fund. Pickering estimates that the initiative will cover roughly 250 lead line replacements.