Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority responds to lead concerns with series of community meetings | Blogh

Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority responds to lead concerns with series of community meetings

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Sarah Bolenbaugh, an engineer at PWSA, shows a piece of lead pipe to the crowd. - CP PHOTO BY STEPHEN CARUSO
  • CP Photo by Stephen Caruso
  • Sarah Bolenbaugh, an engineer at PWSA, shows a piece of lead pipe to the crowd.
For the past 26 years, Adam Butkus has lived at 306 S. Neville St., in a home built in 1865.

After hearing about Flint, Mich., where lead contamination has made the city’s water undrinkable, he became concerned.

“I saw these horrific conditions,” Butkus said, referencing Flint, which was declared in a federal state of emergency for eight months earlier this year due to its water quality.

Looking at his 151-year-old house, he worried about his own water. So when the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority released a report over the summer that showed 17 out of 100 Pittsburgh homes had lead levels above federal standards, he requested a testing kit for himself.

Butkus requested the kit in August. But after receiving and returning the kit in October, he has yet to see the results.

“I’m not really trying to give [the PWSA] a hard time,” Butkus said. “It’s just almost December and we’re still waiting.”

Butkus was one of 50 people who appeared at a Nov. 29 PWSA public meeting to hear a presentation from Bernard Lindstrom, the authority’s interim executive director, and other senior staff about lead in Pittsburgh’s water.

In a statement to Pittsburgh City Paper, following the meeting, the PWSA blamed one of the contractors hired to process the kits for not moving fast enough.

Per the contract, samples are supposed to be delivered to customers within 10 business days of the request, and should take around three-and-a-half weeks to process.

The meeting was one of seven planned by the PWSA, each dedicated to a Pittsburgh City Council district, meant to assuage citizen’s fears about the lead findings.

“We are not Flint, Michigan,” Lindstrom said. Instead, Lindstrom blamed poor testing in the past by PWSA for the seemingly sudden rise in lead levels of the past few months.

In District 8, water in 15 out of the 181 homes (8.3 percent) that returned their lead test kits was found above the federal limit of 15 parts per billion of lead to water. The district includes parts of Oakland, Shady Side and Squirrel Hill.

Elevated lead levels are most dangerous for children. Exposure to lead has been linked to aggression, anxiety and depression, along with other behavioral and emotional effects, leading the National Institute of Health to say that there might be “no safe lead level.”

Lead can contaminate water as it passes through lead-lined pipes — or pipes connected with lead-based solder — into people’s homes. In the presentation, PWSA explained that studies have determined that lead is coming from the service pipes leading from water mains into people’s homes. Responsibility for those pipes is split between the authority and the property owners.

But Steve Awodey, a Carnegie Mellon professor in the crowd, said mismanagement created the lead crisis, specifically during the two years the authority was run by a private company. According to a report published in Wired magazine in October, part of the issue might be that Pittsburgh handed over control of its water to a private company, Veolia, in 2012. Veolia operates in 68 countries and 530 other American cities.

Under Veolia, the PWSA switched its lead-control substance in Pittsburgh’s pipes from soda ash to caustic soda, a cheaper alternative, without consulting with Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection as legally required, Wired reported in October.

Awodey felt that someone had “to take responsibility for the changes that were made” that seemingly have created Pittsburgh's problem.

Lindstrom asked for understanding from the event’s crowd to help the PWSA reach its goals for the future, including open data on all replaced lead lines as well as a program to connect low-income homeowners with loans to help them replace old lead plumbing.

“I need more than just me,” Lindstrom said. “Our people and our city need to come together.”

But as he left the meeting, Awodey felt frustrated. The Point Breeze resident thought Pittsburgh had gained a lot of ground as a livable place in the past few years, but the lead revelation stood to reverse the city’s gains.

“Nothing will drive young families out of cities faster than lead in the water,” Awodey said.


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