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PWSA celebrates its 10,000th lead service line replacement

Sarah Boden
90.5 WESA

With 10,000 pipes removed from the drinking water supply, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) says it is more than halfway to meeting its goal of removing all public lead service lines from its water system, with approximately 6,000 lines remaining.

The utility has invested nearly $300 million into its lead service line replacement program since its inception in 2017, according to CEO Will Pickering.

“We're just really excited to celebrate this milestone and looking forward to the day when we can say there's no more lead left in our system,” he said.

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While born out of a crisis, Pickering said PWSA’s lead service line replacement program has gone far beyond what regulators required of it back when lead levels exceeded federal and state limits in 2016.

The effort came about after PWSA reported elevated lead levels that exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s acceptable limit of 15 parts per billion (ppb). As a result, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection mandated the authority to develop an action plan and eventually rid the system of lead service lines entirely.

Levels finally fell to meet compliance with federal and state standards in 2020. The authority's most recent testing of 124 homes between this past July and December proved lead levels remain around 5 ppb.

“We were required to do some of this work early on, but we are well beyond our requirements,” Pickering continued. “Our organization, with leadership from the city and partnerships at all levels of government, have encouraged us and helped us find funding and will [help] keep our foot on the gas pedal and go well beyond the regulatory requirements and go toward that goal of eliminating lead from our system.”

Steve Hvozdovich, Pennsylvania campaigns director at Clean Water Action, said advocates agree that the milestone is a significant one. He lauded PWSA for funding the replacements primarily through public grants and loans, rather than shouldering the burden onto ratepayers.

“Would we want it done sooner? Sure, of course. Wanting to make sure people have infrastructure in place that's providing clean drinking water is obviously important,” Hvozdovich said. “But for them to be on track to get something like this done in 10 years, I think, is pretty significant.”

Approximately $270 million in funding for the program since 2019 was sourced through the state’s infrastructure investment authority, PENNVEST. Pickering said rate increases, while a last resort, also helped to fill funding gaps.

Hvozdovich said, although Pittsburgh’s lead service line replacement efforts began with a mandate from regulators, that push put PWSA ahead of the curve in comparison to other utilities in the Commonwealth.

In Philadelphia, authorities have replaced 2,600 lead service lines since 2017, although officials estimate some 20,000 parcels there have one.

President Joe Biden visited Philadelphia earlier this month to announce several hundred million dollars in grants and loans to improve the city’s water system.

Funding for it comes from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure package, which set aside $15 billion for the EPA to disburse for lead service line replacements.

Federal officials estimate 6 to 10 million lead service lines remain in use nationwide, and Biden’s Philadelphia visit served as an opportunity to promote his promise to replace every one of them over the next decade.

The City of Pittsburgh and PWSA have both pledged their commitment to phasing out lead service lines as inaugural partners in the White House’s Get the Lead Out initiative, as have the Philadelphia Water Department and Erie County.

10 Pennsylvania communities will also get a chance to receive direct technical assistance as part of the EPA’s lead service line replacement accelerator program. The EPA said it is working with the Pennsylvania DEP to select eligible communities and will announce those picked in the coming months.

That kind of funding, Hvozdovich stressed, could help bring the state’s smaller utility and authorities up to speed on lead service line replacements.

“There are a lot of other authorities, cities out there that are nowhere near where either of our two major cities are in terms of doing this,” he said.

It’s a problem that often stems from antiquated records, he explained. Without the resources to perform regular inventory audits, a lot of smaller utilities and authorities in the Commonwealth “just don't know where their lead service lines are,” Hvozdovich said.

Pickering said, despite its size and resources, PWSA faces the same issues. Residents can check the authority’s map of lead service lines to learn more about potential risks, but many of the records used to determine where lead service lines exist are more than a century old.

While statistical models used by PWSA estimate 6,000 lead service lines are left to be replaced, Pickering said, in practice, it’s more complicated.

“We're going to have to do work at many more properties — potentially thousands more — to either verify that lead isn't there if we do not have a record at that property, or to excavate, and if there is lead, remove it and replace it with a non-lead material,” he explained.

Pickering said officials will continue to prioritize replacements in areas in which high blood-lead levels among children are concentrated, as well as those with higher concentrations of pregnant people and lower incomes.

"We recognize taking on this work as an individual and contracting with a plumber takes multiple thousands of dollars and an administrative bandwidth that not every community has, and not every property owner has," Pickering added.

Homeowners who want to make these improvements before PWSA begins work in their area can get their expenses reimbursed. All replacements since January 2019 qualify for reimbursement.

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.