Councilwoman wants fast action on lead, not a years-long wait to find Pittsburgh’s problem pipes

Isaac Lott, a student at the Environmental Charter School at Frick Park, takes a drink from the school's water fountain. The school voluntarily tested all of its drinking and cooking water fixtures in October. However, many schools in the Pittsburgh area have not tested, and some officials want to mandate testing at schools and provide water filters. (Photo by Aaron Warnick/PublicSource)

Rather than stand by as the Pittsburgh water authority attempts to track down the lead pipes, area officials are proposing a few measures to stem the problem now. And they’re focusing on schools and households with young children.

Pittsburgh Councilwoman Deborah Gross and State Sen. Wayne D. Fontana, D-Allegheny, announced their initiatives at a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

Gross introduced her effort to start a citywide fund that would provide water filters to local schools, childcare facilities and households with children younger than 6. Children are the most vulnerable to the developmental and neurological problems lead can cause.

“It is incumbent upon us as city leaders to provide safe drinking water for all Pittsburgh children,” she said, adding that she hopes private foundations will support the effort.

She estimates it would cost less than $500,000 to provide filters to the 25,000 Pittsburgh homes with young children.

Kevin Acklin, chief of staff for Mayor Bill Peduto, says the mayor supports the movement to raise money to pay for testing and filters. Acklin said he sees the lead problem as a structural issue that needs to be addressed by the city.

“Water authorities, by law, are not in charge of private lines, which is where we think most of the lead is,” Acklin said. “Unfortunately, they are largely located in areas who have the least resources and are least able to take care of it. We are looking at taking responsibility for them.”

State Sen. Wayne D. Fontana, D-Allegheny, said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon that he is sponsoring legislation that would require annual lead testing in schools and for those results to be made public. (Photo by Kirsten Wong/PublicSource)

On the state level, Fontana said he is introducing legislation that would require annual lead testing in schools, and another bill that would enable homebuyers to request the home be tested for lead in the drinking water.

“Pennsylvania is one of the states that has the most schools and daycares with water that contains high levels of lead in the whole country. This is unacceptable,” he said, referencing a USA Today report from last year.

A new report completed by the Environment America Research & Policy Center, analyzed 16 states and their regulations on lead testing in water. Stephen Riccardi, the Western Pa. field organizer for PennEnvironment, highlighted the report findings for Pennsylvania.

Bottom line: The state got an an F for its response to lead in school drinking water based off of state policies and prevention of lead in school water.

“This is close to home. Here in Pittsburgh, when testing was done in schools last year, 141 water faucets were found to have levels of lead above 20 ppb,” he said.

The EPA school guidelines, which are voluntary, recommend intervention if lead levels reach or exceed 20 ppb. The EPA municipal action limit is 15 ppb.

Students at schools in Butler County and Philadelphia were exposed to acute levels of lead. In a nationwide analysis of testing done by the EPA, Pennsylvania has the highest number of samples from school taps above the EPA’s action level, according to the report.

PublicSource recently reported that most schools in Allegheny County (both public and charter schools) are not testing their water for lead, and when they do, the tests are not consistent and action is not always taken. Again, schools are not required to conduct this testing.  

“In Pennsylvania, we have no current state law that requires testing for school drinking water, no limits on allowable lead levels and no plans to remove lead infrastructure from our schools,” Riccardi said.

The city’s aging infrastructure, from the pipes, to the plumbing and the fixtures, is a major factor behind why Pittsburgh’s lead problem is so complicated. The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority [PWSA] has also apparently made some choices that have exacerbated the problems. (See this article to understand further what’s going on with our water and news on the latest audit of PWSA.)

PWSA is mapping out the locations of service lines that contain lead.

“We have a long-term infrastructure budget ahead of us,” Gross said. “We are currently trying to locate the lead water service lines in each and every home in the city to find out which homes have lead. We are creating a database to create immediate remediations. That’s going to take years.”

What the city can do now, she suggests, is provide NSF-certified water filters that cost about $35 each. To pay for the filters, she’s urging other city council members to support the effort and attempting to find money through PWSA and donations. Gross did not provide an estimate for equipping schools and childcare facilities with the filters.

Fontana highlighted the fact that the state doesn’t have the proper funding for oversight or for remediation of drinking water containing lead.

The legislation he is cosponsoring champions transparency. He is calling for the lead testing results taken at schools to be made public and for homebuyers to be given the opportunity to test for lead before the purchase is complete.

“All homeowners should be aware of what they are buying and any potential risks with the property,” he said.

With conversations already beginning with council members to try to find sources for these initiatives, Gross has high hopes to keep children and families healthy.

“The goal is to be lead-free,” she said.

Clarification (3/2/2017): The limits and guidelines on lead in drinking water set by the Environmental Protection Agency for municipalities and schools have been clarified.

Reach PublicSource intern Kirsten Wong at kirsten@publicsource.org or on Twitter @kwong__.