Pittsburgh Faces Hurdles In Removing Lead From Drinking Water Pittsburgh faces a Pennsylvania state mandate to lower the amount of lead in its drinking water. The city's initial effort backfired, and the job will drag on for years.
NPR logo

Pittsburgh Faces Hurdles In Removing Lead From Drinking Water

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/548255845/548255846" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Pittsburgh Faces Hurdles In Removing Lead From Drinking Water

Pittsburgh Faces Hurdles In Removing Lead From Drinking Water

Pittsburgh Faces Hurdles In Removing Lead From Drinking Water

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/548255845/548255846" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Pittsburgh faces a Pennsylvania state mandate to lower the amount of lead in its drinking water. The city's initial effort backfired, and the job will drag on for years.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Three years after Flint, Mich.'s lead crisis began, many other cities are still struggling to deal with the same problem. Pittsburgh is one of them, mired in an effort to replace lead pipes laid down decades ago. The city is now under state mandate to lower the amount of lead in its drinking water. But as The Allegheny Front's Reid Frazier reports, it faces legal, technical and financial hurdles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOVELS DIGGING)

REID FRAZIER: On Pittsburgh's North Side, a work crew digs through asphalt, cement and clay. An hour in and five feet below the street, Mark McClafferty shovels out one last scoop of dirt before finding what he's been looking for.

MARK MCCLAFFERTY: Lead.

FRAZIER: He sees the telltale sign of lead pipes, large round lumps where different sections of pipe join together, almost like the pipes are swollen.

MCCLAFFERTY: Like a ball there. It's round. That's when they heat it up and melt the lead together. Anything else would have a nut on it.

FRAZIER: Since failing a lead test last year, Pittsburgh's Water and Sewer Authority has been required to find and replace lead service lines, the pipes that take water into houses. Now, the city only has authority to replace the public side of the water line, the part from the curb away from the house.

But doing that and leaving the private side in place can actually make the problem worse. Bob Weimar is interim executive director of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.

BOB WEIMAR: We had some particularly high results well over a hundred parts per billion.

FRAZIER: That's six times the EPA threshold for lead in drinking water. Turns out there's a coating inside the pipes that keeps lead from leaching into the water.

WEIMAR: And what we found is that the lining we're putting in and has been in place now for a couple of decades is subject to being broken up as a result of just physical jostling.

FRAZIER: In some places, when a work crew has removed a public side of the line, loose chunks of that private lead pipe right next to it have broken free. The long-term solution is to replace the entire line. The city is pushing a state bill to allow it to do just that.

That would cost upwards of $400 million and take a decade or more to complete. For now, that work crew on the North Side is just identifying problem lines to fix later, says Water Authority engineer Manda Metzger.

MANDA METZGER: We just backfill it and leave it until we either coordinate with the homeowner if they prefer to change their line. Otherwise, we can't do a partial replacement.

FRAZIER: Though lead levels have been falling in Pittsburgh, scientists say there's no safe amount of lead in water, especially for young children.

KEVIN EDMONSON: That's a pretty rock. Could you please put it back?

FRAZIER: Kevin Edmonson has been watching the digging from his porch with his two young grandchildren. Even with months of publicity, Edmonson hadn't heard about Pittsburgh's lead problems until the work crew showed up. They actually can fix the lead problem at his house since only the public side of his line is lead. In fact, Edmonson's been drinking bottled water for a long time because he doesn't trust the city's water. But he does use it for cooking and bathing.

EDMONSON: I'm excited for them to be changing it, though - you know? - to keep my family safe.

FRAZIER: Edmonson is lucky. Thousands of Pittsburghers will have to wait years to have their lead pipes replaced. For NPR News, I'm Reid Frazier in Pittsburgh.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID GILMOUR'S "AND THEN")

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.