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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.

Council Approves Bill To Allow PWSA To Perform Full Line Replacements

Irina Zhorov
Keystone Crossroads
Instructors at the Pittsburgh Plumbers Local No. 27 training school use a piece of lead service line to teach students about working with older plumbing.

Pittsburgh City Council on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to a bill that would allow the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority to replace the private side of residential lead service lines when it is also replacing the public side.

PWSA put its partial line replacement program on hold in June, after tests in some homes showed elevated levels of lead in tap water after the replacement of only the public side of the line.

PWSA is responsible for the public side, from the water main to the curb, and property owners are responsible for the private side, from the curb to the building.

The authority has maintained that it cannot legally replace the entire service line, as state law bars it from competing with private businesses.

The Peduto administration is attempting to get around that by authorizing the city, not PWSA, to enter into agreements with property owners in order to complete the replacements.

PWSA contractors or subcontractors would do the actual work of replacement.

The bill passed with tepid support from council; six members voted yes and Councilwoman Darlene Harris abstained. Councilman Corey O’Connor also indicated he would abstain, but left the room before a vote was taken.

“I disagree with doing an amendment at the table for two brand new bills at 7:45 in the morning, and finding out that residents are going to pay. So I’m not voting on this today,” O’Connor said.

The Peduto administration had submitted a new version of the bill Wednesday morning, hours before the scheduled vote. The primary substantive change in the legislation was that homeowners could be charged some portion of the cost of the replacement. The previous version had said replacements would cost nothing for the homeowner.

Peduto’s Chief of Staff Kevin Acklin said the administration had not yet developed a mechanism for determining who would get free replacements and who would have to pay – and how much they would have to pay.

Councilman Dan Gilman urged the administration not to base the formula on income alone.

“If you have have three children and make $75,000 and your line is 43 feet long, that may be a much greater hardship than someone who makes $42,000, has no kids and has an 8 foot line,” Gilman said.

In addition to replacing the line itself, PWSA would replace disturbed concrete paving, such as sidewalks, and re-seed grassy areas.

Councilwoman Darlene Harris said that could still strap low-income homeowners with a big bill if they have to replace interior flooring or walls.

“It said nothing about if the lead lines in a home are under a wall or a floor, of what will be done,” Harris said.

The legislation does address that issue. It states homeowners would be responsible for interior repairs necessitated by the replacement of the line. Homeowners would also be preparing the interior room for the line replacement work – potentially tearing up flooring or removing drywall themselves.

Council President Bruce Kraus admitted the bill wasn’t perfect, but urged his colleagues to move forward anyway.

“Perfect is the enemy of the good. This is good, and it’s a proper step forward and I encourage us to take it today,” Kraus said.

After violating the federal Safe Drinking Water Act last year, PWSA was tasked with replacing 7 percent of lead service lines per year.

PWSA Interim Executive Director Bob Weimar told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on Wednesday that the authority will be cited by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for failing to replace a required 1,341 lead service lines before June 30.

“I remember the phone call," Acklin said, referencing the administration's decision to halt partial line replacement in June. "I said, ‘We’re done.’ The response was ‘Well, you may get fined.’ And my answer was, ‘Well, we’re going to do the right thing.'”

City Council also gave preliminary approval to a bill that requires home sellers to disclose the presence of lead plumbing in homes. Both bills are expected to receive a final vote next week.