Apr 29, 2019

Looking at Lead

May Q&A regarding lead removal efforts in Pittsburgh

May Q&A regarding lead removal efforts in Pittsburgh

In 2015, under the management of a private water corporation, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PSWA) began using a new corrosion control chemical, which led to an increase in lead contamination. In February 2019, Pittsburgh United, a coalition of organizations advocating for safe water, secured a legal settlement that requires PWSA to spend nearly $50 million to address high levels of lead in drinking water. WQP Managing Editor Lauren Estes asked Pittsburgh United Environmental Justice Organizer Aly Shaw about the settlement. 

Lauren Estes: Why was there a need for legal intervention?

Aly Shaw: The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) has been in exceedance of the federal allowable limit [for lead] for about three years now. We have tested at well over 15 ppb several times. There was a growing concern among Pittsburgh residents that the city and the water authority were not acting quick enough and were not trying to address the problem in intermediate ways, like providing water filters to enough people or giving people proper guidance for how to address the problem. Even though we did see a lot of improvements at PWSA over the past couple years, we felt like this was an opportunity for us to make some real long-term policy changes that would do a lot to address the issues around lead and also around affordability. 

Estes: What were key terms of the settlement?

Shaw: The most critical things for us were that PWSA started a program to provide free water filters to anyone who was eligible for their customer assistance program and that includes all low-income customers. To be qualified for the winter moratorium, which is the broadest program, customers must be at 250% of the poverty line. So that covers thousands of repairs and we are starting to see PWSA distribute more filters. 

One of the things we have been concerned about for the past couple years is partial line replacements and the danger of only replacing half of lead service lines. We were able to put some protections in place for renters who, for whatever reason, their landlord decided not to participate in the free line replacement program. In some cases, that was putting renters in a place where they had no say in getting a partial line replacement. We also won the creation of two community advisory committees. We have one that is called the PWSA Lead Response Advisory Committee. That will get to play a role in deciding which neighborhoods get line replacements over the next two years and will also help with advising on outreach and making sure people are actually agreeing and taking PWSA up on these free line replacements. 

Estes: How did the community collaborate to make the settlement possible?

Shaw: I think over the past few years we have been running a campaign targeting both PWSA and the city to make sure that they first take some short-term steps to address the lead crisis. At one point, the city gave away 20,000 water filters for free and eventually they got PWSA to commit to replacing all lead service lines, which was a big difference from where the city and PWSA were when this crisis first happened. I think getting them to acknowledge it was a problem and take long-term steps to address it was really big and all came from public pressure. I think public accountability and public oversight really meant that PWSA was able to take some of these steps in a way that I think a private utility might not have.

Estes: For those with lead contamination, how can they receive filters?

Shaw: Right now, there are a couple of ways you can receive a free filter from PWSA. If you have your water tested­—and you can get it tested for free through PWSA—if your lead levels come in over 15 ppb, you are eligible for a free filter. PWSA should send it to you along with your results. If you have a line replacement or if you replaced your own line, PWSA is required to provide you with a filter. If you qualify for the assistance programs, you are also eligible for a free filter. The city and PWSA also have online coupons for ZeroWater pitcher filters, so you can get a discount off of those filters that you can find at most department stores. 

About the author

Aly Shaw is environmental justice organizer for Pittsburgh United. Shaw can be reached at [email protected]

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