PITTSBURGH — It was a precarious situation here: There was lead in the tap water, and the city had a year to begin replacing an estimated 17,000 lead pipes or else face millions in fines.
Barred by state law from spending public money on private property, Pittsburgh in spring 2017 — nearly a year after the lead was first detected in July 2016 — began replacing sections of lead pipe running from the water main to curbs, leaving the part of each pipe running from the curb into homes untouched.
But officials noticed an alarming trend: lead levels didn’t fall. Instead, they spiked, in some homes to more than six times the amount allowed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
While removing even a portion of the lead line might seem like an improvement, it can be harmful in the short term. According to the EPA, cutting into the pipe can disturb the lead, introducing more of it into the water system just as it’s about to enter someone’s home.
In following up with customers, the utility realized those with partial line replacements weren’t properly following instructions to flush their pipes or use the provided water filters. With partial replacements making the problem worse, the city called off the operation — despite facing a $2.4 million fine from the state Department of Environmental Protection for failing to complete the required replacements.
“We were caught in a Catch-22,” said Will Pickering, a spokesman for Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. “We would rather face penalties from DEP than continue along that path where we might be affecting customers.”
The drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has raised awareness of the dangers of the estimated 6 million lead pipes servicing American homes. But there are conflicting rules regarding what can be done on public versus private property — and who can pay for it — presenting challenges for cities looking to address the problem.
It isn’t easy for many homeowners — and even some utilities — to pay $3,000 to $5,000 to replace a lead pipe running into a home. And even when utilities are inclined to pay, property laws or homeowners may stop them.
Pittsburgh began to solve its problems when Pennsylvania legislators last year allowed utilities to start using ratepayer money to cover the cost of replacing pipes on private property. Indiana and Wisconsin last year made similar changes to their laws, clearing the way for a possible solution in the three states, each of which has between 160,000 and 295,000 lead pipes.
Pittsburgh is now spending $44 million to replace both sides — private and public — of the remaining 12,000 or so lead service lines in the city. In Indiana, the utility American Water recently got approval from the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission to fully replace an estimated 50,000 lead service lines.
When homeowners are asked to cover some or all of the cost of replacement, fewer pipes are replaced. Wisconsin’s new law allows cities to use ratepayer money to cover half the cost of the private side replacement. In Cincinnati, the utility will cover up to $1,500 of the private side replacement, though private donations help cover the full cost for low-income residents. Providence, Rhode Island, is offering loans to cover replacement costs that will be interest-free for three years.
Fifteen states each have more than 100,000 lead pipes connecting to homes, according to research by the American Water Works Association. Some of the states with the most lead pipes are those bordering the Great Lakes, stretching from New York through the Rust Belt and across to Minnesota.
When Pittsburgh workers recently tested Mary Denison’s water, it had 45 parts per billion of lead, three times what the EPA allows. The water was fine when she tested it decades ago when her children were young, she said. She has no idea when the lead levels spiked.
“It just makes you wonder, is that why I get confused all the time? It just does make you feel more self-conscious and worried,” she said. “I buy all organic. I can my vegetables. I eat whole grains. … I’m sure my friends think I’m a health nut, so I do care about these things.”
Her house serves as the drop-off point for a local Community Supported Agriculture program, also known as a CSA. Wooden crates heaping with organic vegetables are scattered across her porch, and other neighbors, many of whom have also recently had lead lines replaced, stop by to pick up their produce.
Her neighbor’s lead line had been replaced that morning. A backhoe on the street pulled out more than 40 feet of silvery piping, while a worker inside the house snaked in a new copper one behind it. When workers tossed aside the malleable old pipe, first buried in 1904, they left a nearly 5-foot-deep hole to fill.
Replacing the pipe isn’t difficult. Getting the money and permission to do so is another story.
Wisconsin cities can only use utility revenue to cover half the cost of the replacement. Affected homeowners must cover the rest of the cost, though they can pay it off in installments as part of their water bill.
Wisconsin state Sen. Robert Cowles, a Republican who sponsored the bill in the Senate, originally wrote it to allow cities to pay the full cost of replacing the private line, fearing that some families would turn down the replacement because of the cost.
Cowles said there is a broad societal benefit to having clean drinking water, so it makes sense to spread the costs across the population.
“Do only the rich get to have clean water or do we all get to have it?” he asked. “Do we really want a situation where poor people in these inner-city neighborhoods are hurting their kids?”
Preventing the brain damage caused by lead would save the state money in education and health care expenses in the long run, he argued. But state Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, a Republican who sponsored the bill in the House, said homeowners would need to have some stake in the outcome.
“I think it’s obvious that if you’re going to provide them with 100 percent of the cost to fix this problem there’s no barrier to them going out and finding the highest-cost replacement that they can,” he said in a National Conference of State Legislatures webinar.
So far, Kenosha is the only Wisconsin city to take advantage of the new law. Edward St. Peter, general manager of the Kenosha Water Utility, said he expects residents who take out a city loan to finance their half of the replacement will have a $17 payment added to their water bill each month for 10 years.
Even when cities are willing to foot the bill, some homeowners aren’t willing to allow city workers onto their property to do the work.
“I had one guy tell me, ‘I’m 75, I’ve been living in this house and drinking this water my whole life, and there’s nothing wrong with me, so you’re not touching my line,’” said Randy Bergia, who oversees the field workers who go door to door in Pittsburgh in advance of construction to chat with homeowners.
Pickering said 90 percent of city residents have agreed to have their line replaced when the city is doing work on their block. But some residents of the hilly city fear damaging their retaining walls or have cringed at the idea of disturbing their landscaping. Others simply do not want workers on their property.
In most cases, city officials leave the entire lead line in place, from the water main to the house, rather than stir up lead levels by replacing half of it. But others have passed ordinances mandating that homeowners allow the work.
In 2000, lead levels in Madison, Wisconsin, surpassed the federal allowance. But the city managed to eradicate the pipes in about a decade, thanks in part to a city council ordinance mandating that homeowners replace pipe sections on their property. The city would contribute up to $1,000 to defray homeowners’ expenses.
“I don’t think we would’ve been successful without making it mandatory, because there were some people, even after letting them know they had 10 years to get this done, [who] came down to the end,” said Robin Piper, chief administrative officer for Madison Water Utility. “There were a few that needed to be referred to the city attorney for follow up that didn’t want to do it.”