Pittsburgh Agrees to Terms for Tackling Its Lead-Contaminated Water

The settlement will protect the health of the city’s residents, who have been dealing with lead contamination issues for years. 

Thanks to a legal agreement negotiated by local advocacy organizations, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) will now safely replace thousands of its lead water lines and take significant new steps toward protecting residents’ drinking water.

“The people of Pittsburgh have been drinking lead-contaminated water for far too long,” says Dimple Chaudhary, a senior attorney with NRDC.

Pittsburgh United, a coalition of labor, faith, and environmental groups, advocated for the settlement, represented by lawyers from NRDC and the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project. The agreement controls how PWSA will spend nearly $50 million in 2019 to safely remove the lead service lines. Specific requirements include improving access to tap water filters; prioritizing which lines are replaced first using public health factors, like lead levels in blood tests; and increasing discounts for low-income customers on their water bill. 

“Safe water is a right, not a luxury,” says Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy, the executive director of Pittsburgh United. “We believe every family in Pittsburgh deserves to drink safe water from their taps without high water bills breaking the bank.”

The stakes are high: Experts agree there is no safe level of lead. Pregnant women and children are most vulnerable, as even low levels are associated with serious, irreversible damage to developing brains and nervous systems. The burdens of lead are also heaviest on low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, who are more likely to live in homes with aging infrastructure, which are common in Pittsburgh.

In fact, lead levels in Pittsburgh have been high since at least 2016, according to an NRDC analysis. And PWSA estimates there being as many as 10,000 lead service lines remaining on public properties.  (The number of lead service lines on private properties has yet to be estimated). NRDC data show that Pittsburgh is the second-largest water system in the country to have exceeded the action level for lead set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—and one of multiple cities to face drinking water crises in recent years.

In early 2016, NRDC and its partners sued the City of Flint and Michigan state officials for violating the Safe Drinking Water Act, in what has become one of the most high-profile cases of lead water contamination in U.S. history. Some water samples at the time showed lead levels at more than 100 times the federal action level. Though the city and state later agreed to replace the city’s lead lines, an estimated 9,000 children were exposed to contaminated water. More recently, Newark, New Jersey’s drinking water was found to have some of the highest recently recorded lead levels by a large water system in the United States—prompting another lawsuit by NRDC and partners in June 2018.

Today’s settlement with Pittsburgh is likely to point the way for other cities exposed to lead-contaminated water. It “requires aggressive, affordable solutions to protect public health and hold officials accountable to the people they serve,” says Chaudhary. “It’s what Pittsburgh—and every community in America—deserves.”

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