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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:

DEP Secretary: City Water Safe To Drink, But PWSA Must Follow Rules

Pittsburgh Sewer and Water Authority

In 2014, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority changed the treatment chemical used to prevent the corrosion of lead pipes, which keeps the toxic metal from leaching into drinking water.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said the switch—from soda ash to caustic soda—posed no threat to public health, but the DEP has cited PWSA for not clearing the change with the agency first, as is required by the state's safe drinking water regulations.

PWSA has since switched back to using soda ash in its water treatment process, but the citation, along with the continued fallout from the Flint, Mich. water crisis might make some wonder just how concerned Pittsburghers should be about the safety of our drinking water.

It’s a question Morning Edition Host Josh Raulerson posed to DEP Secretary John Quigley when he stopped by the 90.5 WESA studio earlier this week.

Josh Raulerson: So, starting with the switch from soda ash to caustic soda--we learned that this switch happened in 2014. It took until this week for DEP to cite the agency for that. When did you first learn that this change had been made, and why did it take so long to act on that?

John Quigley: Well, we became aware of it in January of this year—Jan. 22, 2016— when the authority announced it. There was an article in the local newspaper here in Pittsburgh that we became aware of. We immediately started an investigation and actually issued the notice of violation about three weeks later. And since then we have been conducting an investigation and then, this week, issued an administrative order directing the authority to take certain actions to test and prove that the water is safe. 

JR: So, we understand that the water is indeed safe. However, going back to earlier water quality reports, the most recent one shows the lead levels are around the neighborhood of 15 ppb, I understand, which is close to that action level that would require some sort of coordinated response.

But, if we go back to 1999, we understand the authority was registering numbers that were near zero ... very little lead in the water. 

What could account for that change over the last 17 years in the lead levels?

JQ: Well, it's difficult to speculate and, in fact, one of the things that we're asking the authority to do, especially with respect to what's gone on since the change to caustic soda in 2014, is to look at the water quality parameters and the data that the authority has to determine if, in fact, there was any risk to the public during the time they were using a non-permitted treatment. 

But the issue with lead is simply this:  it's not the source water, certainly here in Pittsburgh, that's the issue.

We actually tested the source water coming out of the treatment plant just last week, and we were at non-detect levels for both lead and copper. The issue with lead is what happens when it gets into buildings and it gets into homes. That's where you see the presence of lead pipes, lead soldering, lead fixtures, and that's where the lead can become liberated in drinking water.

So, as building stock ages, that is--simply the passage of time is one of the factors that could account for an increase in levels of lead. But, clearly we have seen the tests inching closer toward notification levels here in Pittsburgh, so we want to make sure that we understand what has been going on.

JR: So, what is the difference between these two materials in terms of the way that they control corrosion in lead pipes, soda ash and caustic soda? Why is this change significant?

JQ: Well, both of these materials can be used for corrosion control. The issue is simply this: when the authority designed its current treatment operation in 1993, they did a feasibility study and modeled the use of soda ash. They did not model and do any feasibility work on the use of caustic soda to determine whether or not the use of caustic soda would in fact be efficacious and provide the same level of corrosion protection.

The fact that they didn't do any of that work—they took a flyer, essentially. And that's not permissible; that simply is contrary to state drinking water regulations. 

JR: And, I understand, these materials can affect different water systems in different ways depending on what's already in the water. 

JQ: Correct. It is very much a system-specific determination. These kinds of chemicals can work; they are common in the industry, so to speak. But you have to test specifically for your water system because of the characteristics of the source water and the characteristics, really, of the distribution system. So, it's very much a community specific determination. 

JR: So, the broader context for all of this is all of the attention that's been focused on the water crisis in Flint, Mich. In that city, emergency managers made a decision, I think, on a cost-savings basis to switch their water supply, and then, because of the way they were treating or maybe not appropriately treating that water, you had lead in the water. 

Not to imply that these are any way equivalent situations, but maybe some comparison is to be drawn specifically in the area of municipal governments taking these belt-tightening measures to save on the bottom line.

First of all, are you seeing more of this in Pennsylvania, and how does that affect your ability to regulate water safety?

JQ: Well, the first thing I'll say is that I'm a recovering local official myself. I was the mayor of the city of Hazleton in Luzerne County for eight years, and I understand the strains that local governments and local utilities face. 

But you can't make a change without complying with safe drinking water regulations, and that's what happened here. Nothing in the regulations discourages municipalities or treatment systems from looking to save money, but they've got to follow the law, they've got to follow the regulations, they have to protect the citizens they serve. And that requires them to study the effect of any change, and, here, the water and sewer authority did not study the effect of that change and get it approved before they implemented it. 

So, they just got ahead of themselves.

JR: Yeah, and that's really the issue here. We don't have any evidence to say that safety is at issue, it's just that they didn't follow the correct process. 

JQ: Right. I want to emphasize that based on the data that we have, on the water tests that DEP conducted last week of the source water coming out of the treatment plant, and based on the fact that the authority has gone back to its permitted corrosion control treatment, we have no data that suggests there is any risk at all to the public. 

But what we have to do is, number one, ensure that this is the case, and that's why we're requiring the authority to do rounds of lead and copper monitoring in the remainder of this calendar year, and we're also requiring the authority to go back and look at all of their water quality sampling data and determine whether there was any potential for an increased level of risk to public health. We need the authority to demonstrate that that was not the case. 

The authority has been very cooperative, they've been very accommodating to our requests, and we expect that that will continue going forward. 

JR: More broadly speaking, how concerned should we be about contaminants like lead in our drinking water?

JQ: I think the good thing that has come out of the Flint crisis, which was a really perfect storm—they changed their source water and changed their corrosion control and messed up royally. 

That's not the case here in Pittsburgh.

There was an error, but not to the magnitude of what happened in Flint. I think the good that has come out of all the public consciousness around lead is that our drinking water'll use the word sacred. It's basic to life. It requires strong regulations, it requires strong oversight, strong enforcement, strong monitoring. 

We have, in Pennsylvania—in fact, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts are the states with the oldest building stocks in the nation. Something like 80 percent of all the buildings constructed in Pennsylvania are pre-World War II. Lead paint was not outlawed in the United States until 1978. So, when you look at the age of our building stock, we have a lot of homes and a lot of commercial buildings and schools that have lead paint and that is really the main source of lead exposure--it happens to be paint. It's not water. 

But in these older buildings you will see lead pipes, lead soldering, lead fixtures; all of those facilities can leach lead if corrosion control is not properly handled. So, that's why we have to be very vigilant at DEP and require the very stringent reporting that we do by all public water supplies to make sure that we're minimizing the risk to the public. 

JR: John Quigley is Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Mr. Secretary, thanks for your time today.

JQ: Thank you very much. 

Josh Raulerson is the local host for Morning Edition weekdays from 5-9 a.m. on 90.5 WESA.