Braddock is the latest municipality to struggle with elevated lead levels. Recent testing showed a spike above federal law. But, unlike a lot of places, the Braddock Water Authority’s pipes are likely not to blame.
The most recent drinking water samples showed lead levels at 23 parts per billion; the “action level” under the federal Lead and Copper Rule, enforced by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is 15 parts per billion.
Unlike in Pittsburgh, where a Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority spokesperson estimated that 12,000 lead connections remain in its conveyance system, Braddock ripped out its old pipes in 1990. The authority took out a $3.5 million loan to rebuild the entire system, less some lines that were replaced in 1974. From pump to curb, it’s all PVC pipe. It’s the other side of the lateral, the homeowner’s or landlord’s side of the line, that remains a question mark.
That’s a big deal, said Tina Doose, Braddock Council president and a member of the authority’s board.
“I want that to be known. We did our due diligence, and I think that was a lot of forward-thinking back then,” she said. “So when it comes to the high lead levels, it is the households specifically that still have lead pipes.”
In a Facebook post to residents, Doose wrote that the authority “has done everything legally possible to eliminate lead in our water.”
Doose clarified in a conversation that the Braddock Water Authority does not have the responsibility to replace lead lines in customers’ homes. However, the agency does have the ability to do so. In 2017, a change to state law explicitly gave municipal authorities the legal authority to replace private water lines with consumers’ consent. Another change permits municipalities to borrow money for that kind of work.
There’s no way Braddock could afford to replace private lines, said Doose.
“We are an Act 47 community,” she said, referring to Pennsylvania’s recovery program for financially distressed municipalities. “Of course there are going to be financial constraints.”
PWSA has been replacing the lead lines in its distribution system. As they do so, they coordinate with homeowners who take the opportunity to replace their side of the line, at no cost to them. In addition, an income-based program will take effect in the near future: PWSA will replace private lead lines of homeowners who can’t bear the cost on their own, in places where a lead line does not exist on the public side. PWSA spokesperson Will Pickering says the authority reached out to the Braddock Water Authority.
"If there are lessons learned or materials that are available, we certainly want to share that with them as they go through this same issue."
Three homes came back with high lead levels from among the 16 homes sampled regularly by Braddock Water Authority. All 16 are known to have lead pipes; the Environmental Protection Agency requires water distributors to choose a consistent set of homes to sample, drawn from sites “with the greatest risk of lead leaching.”
However, the presence of lead pipes doesn’t necessarily mean lead levels will be elevated. Corrosion control treatments form a protective barrier within pipes to prevent water from coming into contact with the metal.
While increased lead levels may be the result of privately owned lines, ultimately, the Braddock Water Authority is responsible for bringing levels down, said Lauren Fraley, community relations coordinator for the Department of Environmental Protection.
“Any public water system is required to come in below the lead action level,” she said. “And when they have an exceedance there’s certain regulatory obligations, steps that they need to take.”
October’s exceedance triggers two parallel timelines: Braddock Water Authority will continue sampling every six months, and must have two six-month periods of testing where lead levels measure below 15 parts per billion. Simultaneously, within 18 months they must conduct a feasibility study for the addition of a corrosion control treatment.
Braddock Water Authority buys all of its water from the Wilkinsburg-Penn Joint Water Authority, which already has corrosion control treatment. The feasibility study would determine whether or not Braddock should build additional facilities on its end.
But that’s a very expensive undertaking, said Fraley, a decision that remains pretty far off. DEP is working with Braddock to figure out what caused the spike.
“We’re just at the really early stages,” she said. “We could find out that it was something wrong with sampling, or...water had been sitting in those pipes for a long time and leaching out.”
Braddock is working with the DEP to distribute educational materials about high lead levels to customers, and the borough is looking for grants to help them buy filters for residents, said Doose.
“I’m the mom of seven children, I have four little boys here. So I know especially if there are kids in the home, their exposure has the most implications,” she said. “We definitely want those families to have clean drinking water. We’ll work and do anything that we’re able to do to help that to come about.”
The DEP recommends that residents use NSF-certified filters or flush their taps for one to two minutes before using water to drink or cook. Boiling water does not reduce lead concentrations.
Braddock mayor John Fetterman declined to comment.
*This article was updated at 2:34 on Nov. 08 to correct the number of lead pipes in PWSA’s distribution system, and to clarify how private lead line replacements are paid for in PWSA’s service area.