| Pittsburgh water utility overcoming massive challenges to reduce lead levels
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Pittsburgh water utility overcoming massive challenges to reduce lead levels

Five years and halfway into a massive lead response project, Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority is seeing the lowest lead levels in its drinking water in a generation. 

Will Pickering“This was the largest project in recent history,” said Will Pickering (pictured right), chief executive officer of Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA). “This was our capital program for a few years.”

In 2016, PWSA exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s action level for lead, a “make-or-break moment” for the utility, Pickering said. Customer trust had eroded over the years because of management turnover and a lack of infrastructure investment, and exceeding federal limits for lead didn’t help. PWSA was charged with replacing 7% of the city’s lead service lines that first year, “and we stumbled out of the gates,” Pickering said.

The utility didn’t have a construction plan and, with spotty records dating back a century or more, didn’t know the location of all lead service lines in its system. But officials knew it was crucial to remove lead from drinking water; exposure can cause brain and kidney damage, and pregnant women and young children are most at risk. 

So PWSA tackled the challenges quickly, first working to change state law to allow public funds to be spent on private property, and by 2018, kicking off the Community Lead Response project in earnest. 

“We recognized we needed to do everything we could to inform people about this issue early on,” Pickering said. “We knew we had to emphasize community outreach.”

A PWSA crew replaces a lead service linePWSA worked with communication consultants to develop educational materials to help the public understand the importance of the project and outline steps they needed to take, such as using a filter, testing their water and allowing crews to access houses. (Pictured left, a PWSA crew replaces a lead service line)

“We wanted to give people information they could really work with,” said Mora McLaughlin, PWSA construction communication project manager.

The utility created a Lead Help Desk, staffed with employees dedicated to scheduling and assisting customers with service line replacements, and held community meetings to discuss the effort. 

Dan Duffy“The first year was a struggle to get people to allow us into houses and replace their service lines for free,” said Dan Duffy (pictured right), lead service line replacement program manager. “That process has gotten easier along the way.” He noted that using trenchless technology on private property eased the public’s fears about major impacts to their yards. 

PWSA also partnered with the University of Pittsburgh to create a computerized model to better predict remaining lead service line locations in PWSA’s distribution system. Generally, lead lines are found in homes built before 1950, but records are imperfect and sometimes nonexistent. 

The utility is targeting high-risk neighborhoods first, by pairing PWSA records with demographic data and health department reports to prioritize areas with low-income households, young children, women of childbearing age and people with elevated blood lead levels. 

“We’re not going with the most convenient areas first,” Pickering said, adding that PWSA also offers a repayment plan to people who want to replace their property’s lead lines on their own, ahead of schedule. “Every lead line that’s removed gets us closer to our goal.”

PWSA lead service line removalPWSA expects to invest more than $200 million on removing lead service lines, paid for by state and federal funds, low-interest loans, grants and water rates. Since 2016, the utility has replaced more than 8,600 publicly owned lines and almost 5,800 privately owned lines, roughly half of the lead service lines in the city. (Pictured left, PWSA lead service line removal)

“We’ve made a huge dent in inventory,” Pickering said. “Productivity has been fantastic.”

PWSA also is adding orthophosphate to its water to form a barrier between lead pipes and the water flowing through them. Pickering said it’s an interim measure for protection until all lead lines are replaced, likely by 2026. 

Duffy and McLaughlin, who sit on the American Water Works Association’s (AWWA) Lead and Water Quality Committee, said they’ve used AWWA resources to guide contractors on replacement practices, as well as for communication strategies to educate customers. They’ve also met with other utilities to discuss what works and what doesn’t in their lead replacement projects. 

There are still inevitable issues with construction disruption that crews are working to improve, but after two years of falling below federal action levels for lead, Pittsburgh residents are encouraged by PWSA’s efforts. 

“We are building a 21st century water system that will be state of the art for the next 50 years,” Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto said in a recent video about the project. “To the ordinary person, they usually aren’t thinking about what’s below their feet when they’re walking on the sidewalk. But there’s probably nothing more important than what is happening below their feet.”

Pickering applauded the teams of PWSA employees and contractors who have taken on such a daunting task. 

“We’ve done a good job of getting our arms around this issue,” Pickering said. “This was really a make-or-break moment for us as an authority. I think a lot of people had doubts about whether we could do this. But we’ve gone above and beyond, and our community is safer because of it.”
(Photos courtesy of PWSA)