Pennsylvania DEP says Pittsburgh utility violated drinking water standards
The state Department of Environmental Protection on Monday cited the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority with violating safe drinking water standards by improperly switching the chemicals it uses to protect customers from lead.
A DEP official said a Tribune-Review story in January tipped off the department that PWSA used caustic soda from April 2014 to January instead of the soda ash required by its operating permit.
DEP officials stressed that the public faces no health risk based on a test conducted Friday at PWSA’s water plant in Aspinwall, but they don’t know whether the change affected lead levels at residential taps. PWSA switched back to soda ash in January.
“Did it have an adverse effect for 14 months? We don’t know that because they don’t have any samples yet from that 14-month period,” said George Jugovic Jr., chief counsel for the environmental watchdog group Penn Future. “What you need are samples taken out in the distribution system at people’s taps during that 14-month period to see if any changes took place.”
That’s impossible, according to PWSA’s acting Executive Director David Donahoe.
He said DEP requires the authority to test at 50 separate residential taps across the PWSA system every three years. The last test was performed in 2013.
The Trib reported 2013 test results showed lead levels of 14.7 parts per billion, just below a federal warning threshold of 15 parts per billion. Friday’s plant test indicated lead levels there of less than 1 part per billion.
“It’s impossible to re-create the actual situation that occurred,” Donahoe said, adding that the authority is cooperating with the DEP.
A DEP order requires PWSA to conduct two rounds of testing for lead and copper this year, provide the department with all sampling done since June 2013 and supply its customers with periodic notices about the results.
PWSA serves 300,000 customers in Pittsburgh and some surrounding municipalities, including Fox Chapel, Millvale, Aspinwall and Reserve.
The state Department of Health is monitoring lead levels in blood samples taken from Pittsburgh-area residents.
Department spokesman Neil Shader said PWSA could be fined.
“At this time we are not issuing a fine,” he said, noting that a department investigation is continuing. “Whether or not we will in the future has yet to be determined.”
DEP officials said PWSA changed chemicals because the cost of soda ash increased and equipment used to feed it into the water system was not operating properly. They also noted that an Allegheny County Health Department inspector checked the water plant in October and knew about the chemical switch but failed to report that PWSA was in violation.
The health department did not address the allegation in a statement.
“The Allegheny County Health Department, as part of its monitoring, reviews monthly operational reports from PWSA,” it said. “The chemicals were both listed on the report and had not changed going back for quite some time. Any action that could or should have been taken would have been with the DEP and it is to that agency that your questions should be addressed.”
Donahoe, who took over last month after former Executive Director Jim Good resigned, said he was not sure why the switch occurred.
“None of the people who made these decisions work here anymore, so it’s hard for me to verify why they made them,” he said.
DEP accepts caustic soda and soda ash as treatments for lead but considers the latter more effective because it provides a calcium-like protective coating on the inside of metal pipes to prevent lead from leaching into drinking water.
Donahoe said PWSA’s permit allows the use of caustic soda, but only as a backup.
Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312 or [email protected].