Bureaucratic Wrangling Delayed A Crucial Water Treatment Change At PWSA For Nearly Two Years

Jan 25, 2019

By the end of March, Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority must begin treating its water with a type of chemical called orthophosphate to lower lead levels.

Officials say they’ll meet the deadline set by Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection. However, the agency would have liked to start the treatment far sooner, said PWSA board member Jim Turner.

“For more than two years we’ve known that orthophosphates, adding that to the water supply… will reduce lead levels for everyone,” he said. “What could be more important than doing that?”

Last week, PWSA reported that water collected during regular sampling from homes known or expected to have lead lines again exceeded the federal lead action level of 15 parts per billion. If the state had approved the addition of orthophosphate sooner, PWSA could have protected people sooner, said Turner, speaking after the agency’s regular board meeting on Friday.

“I certainly never detected that sense of urgency to move quickly on such an important issue,” he said.

PWSA first submitted its plans for a study in May 2017, and submitted its application for a construction permit a year later. At the time, officials said they expected to implement the chemical change by August. 

It’s unusual for a project to take this long to gain approval, but given the problems across the country related to chemical additions, PWSA executive director Bob Weimar understands.

“The state wants to get it right,” he said. “I can’t blame them.”

Orthophosphates create a physical barrier within distribution lines to prevent metals such as lead and copper from leaching into water; PWSA intends to use phosphoric acid. Pennsylvania American Water has treated its water with zinc orthophosphate for decades, according to a company spokesperson. It’s the reason Penn American has never violated the federal regulation about lead and copper in water, said Ryan Hardgrove, water quality supervisor for the southwest area.

“Orthophosphate’s responsible for those low levels,” he said.” We all know how old the infrastructure is, and we know that [orthophosphate] reduces the acidity of the water leaving our treatment facility.”

While orthophosphate has long been a proven way to control lead and copper exposure, its addition to PWSA’s treatment process demanded DEP consider other factors, said Ron Schwartz, director of DEP’s southwest regional office.

“Orthophosphate by its nature is essentially a fertilizer, so it can result in increased microbial growth in the system if it is not properly dosed and administered,” he said.

The pipes in the system must regularly be flushed, which PWSA did not do on a regular schedule for a number of decades, Schwartz said. In addition, PWSA has the Highland Park reservoir, one of the few open reservoirs in the country, which necessitates a different management approach.

“We put a lot of time and effort into the PWSA case and it’s certainly a priority for our agency,” he said. “We are committed to prompt and thorough reviews for these applications.”

Also at Friday’s board meeting, members voted to accept more than $49 million in loan and grant money from the state revolving loan fund, PENNVEST, to fund lead line replacement in 2019. By the middle of 2020, PWSA expects to be able to replace 4,400 lead lines across the city, said Weimar. They will focus the replacement efforts in areas where blood lead levels are high, that have a high density of lead lines, and where there are many children under the age of six.

In addition, PWSA ended 2018 with a positive cash flow, an indication of the agency’s careful stewardship of public money, officials said.