Line by line: how Pittsburgh became a leader in lead service line removal


Amid a major federal government push to get rid of lead in water service lines, many municipalities are struggling to keep up. 

One city has been ahead of the curve: Pittsburgh, which recently celebrated removing 11,000 lead pipes. The Pennsylvania city has around 6,000 pipes to go, and estimates that it will finish around 2026. 

A Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority crew replaces a lead water service line.

Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority

Pittsburgh’s long road to removing lead service lines can show other municipalities what to expect as the Environmental Protection Agency pushes cities to remove the lead from their water systems. 

July 12, 2016: Pittsburgh’s lead levels exceed EPA thresholds
The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority tested 100 water samples in accordance with the EPA lead and copper rule, and found that 17 of them had levels that exceeded 15 parts per billion, the EPA’s threshold for action.

The 90th percentile of test results had lead levels of 22 ppb. 

Lead levels may have spiked because the PWSA switched to using “caustic soda” in its pipes in 2014, without seeking EPA approval or notifying its customers. But Pittsburgh would certainly have had a lead problem regardless — Allegheny County didn’t ban lead pipes until 1969, and 83% of Pittsburgh homes predate 1970. 

After the test results, the PWSA launched a public education program, started sending lead tests to people’s homes, and Pittsburgh started working on blood tests for all children under age 6. 

The main consequence: the PWSA must replace 7% of its lead pipes per year until the levels are below the EPA threshold. In December, a second round of tests found lead levels to be lower, but still above the EPA threshold.

January 12, 2017: Getting started
The lead and copper rule required the PWSA to start removing lead pipes by six months after the test. 

The PWSA hit that deadline, but a problem soon emerged: the city owned its main lines, but the pipes connecting main lines to homes were privately owned. 

The PWSA offered to change homeowners’ pipes at the same time as the main lines if the homeowners covered the cost, but few homeowners were interested. So PWSA simply replaced the lines it owned, as required by law. 

225,000 pieces of paper 
The PWSA began to tackle what it had long known would be a problem: the records of where its pipes are, and which of them are made of lead, are often more than a century old. 

This is a common challenge for municipalities, according to Stephen Via, director of federal relations for the American Water Works Association. 

The PWSA worked with the University of Pittsburgh to create a system that predicted which pipes it should test for lead. While it did so, PWSA employees digitized its paper records — they estimated there were over 200,000 of them.

The PWSA is still working on finding lead service lines to this day, said Edward Barca, its director of finance.

June 4, 2017: Hitting the brakes 
Based on Pittsburgh’s estimates, it should have removed over 1,000 pipes by June 30, 2017, but it quickly became clear that PWSA didn’t even know where enough pipes were to meet it. Staring down the barrel of the deadline, the PWSA instead announced that it would no longer do partial line replacements. 

The PWSA tested the water after doing partial line replacements and found that lead levels in nearby homes actually spiked afterwards, according to Mora McLaughlin, PWSA’s Construction Community Project Manager. After the PWSA cut into lead pipes, the half that remained would leech more lead into the water supply.

But even though the PWSA explained this to homeowners, only around 20 people agreed to replace their private lead lines. 

“Especially in low income communities, [but] even in places where people might have the means, it’s very difficult and it is a burden to then have to go out and coordinate work with your water utility,” McLaughlin said. “It just wasn’t working. We were not seeing any takers.”

So the deadline came, and the PWSA had removed only 415 lead service lines. 

October 25, 2017: A new law
The Pennsylvania legislature approved a solution to the PWSA’s problem, passing a spending package that allowed municipalities to spend public money repairing privately owned sewer laterals.

Pittsburgh’s city council passed similar legislation. But a few conditions needed to be satisfied before the PWSA could take advantage of the new rules.

November 2017: Rate hikes
The PWSA board announced that rates would increase nearly 50% from 2017 to 2020. The PWSA argued that it should have raised rates several times in past years, but had neglected to upkeep the system. 

Later that month, the PWSA signed a consent order with the state Department of Environmental Protection, admitting failures in, among other things, the initial lead levels and the failure to rectify them since. 

In the order, the PWSA agreed to several actions including a $2.4 million fine, and a plan for spending $1.8 million of the fine on replacing pipes for low-income households. It also set a deadline for replacing 1,341 service lines by June 30, 2018.

Although the agreement may have stung a little, changes over the last months of 2017 allowed the PWSA to entirely transform its operations. The PWSA ramped up lead service line replacements going into 2018, McLaughlin said. 

Post consent order: A new modus operandi
Once PWSA could pay to replace customers’ service lines, it could replace lead pipes anywhere it wanted. So, the authority developed criteria to guide it, Barca said.

The PWSA targeted areas with high rates of lead in children’s blood tests, areas near schools, income level, and areas with high populations of children and women of childbearing age. The PWSA works in clusters, replacing as many of the lead lines in a neighborhood as possible before moving on, and also tries to do other repair work on main lines during the process. 

Now that customers no longer have to pay to replace the lead lines, communications are much simpler, Barca said. 

“We have a very comprehensive process in place that identifies, in a letter format, the process the PWSA uses to replace lead, gives expectations on what the customer should expect as far as timing [for] replacement of that lead line,” Barca said.

If a customer still refuses to let the PWSA replace a lead line, Barca said, it has the authority to shut off their water. But mostly, customers are fine with getting free, lead-free pipes. 

May 18, 2018: First steps toward orthophosphates 
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection approved the introduction of orthophosphates into the PWSA’s water system.

“[It’s] a food grade additive and essentially creates a coating on the inside of the pipe that protects the drinking water from the pipe material,” McLaughlin said. “And that protective coating is what reduces the lead exposure in the water.”

The PWSA didn’t add the chemical to the water until 2019, after more agencies approved it, McLaughlin said.

June 30, 2018: target achieved
The city removed the 1,341 pipes required in its consent order. From the consent decree to the deadline requires a speed of more than 40 pipes replaced per week, but it actually happened even faster, as the PWSA had to take time to line up contracts and plan construction. 

One factor that contributed to the speed was the PWSA adopting the trenchless system, so they could remove and replace a pipe in one fluid motion. 

Construction workers locate the line in the basement, connect the end of the lead line to the beginning of the new pipe. Then, they go to the street, dig up the part of the pipe that connects to the main line, and use a backhoe to pull the lead pipe out and pull the new pipe underground. 

It avoids having to dig up the yards at the homes getting pipes replaced.

The trenchless system usually takes the PWSA around a day, McLaughlin estimates. It also cuts down the time spent convincing customers to replace their pipes. 

Pittsburgh, at this point, had a much faster, smoother process than many municipalities, according to Via. 

“We find a crew that’s on a dedicated program for that service line replacement can, on average, replace something like three lead service lines a day,” Via said. But times will vary: “What if the line breaks when it’s been pulled out, or it doesn’t pull and now you’ve got to go to either digging a trench or or using a hydraulic ram? So now you’ve just doubled your time on site.”

Short front yards are very common in Pittsburgh, McLaughlin said, which keeps the process faster in many cases.

Via said other municipalities also suffer from a lack of funds to pay for private line replacement, or are barred from spending public money to repair private property, as Pittsburgh initially was. 

Cost is another factor that varies from city to city. The EPA estimates that the average lead line costs $4,500 to replace, but most estimates are higher. Newark, New Jersey, estimates that its average line replacement costs $7,000. Chicago, which has nearly 400,000 lead pipes, put its cost somewhere between $15,000 and $26,000 per line.

Barca said Pittsburgh’s costs usually range from $5,000 to $10,000 per line. The AWWA uses $10,000 as an average, Via said, although lately costs have been trending higher, at up to $15,000.

By July 2018, tests foundthe lowest lead levels in Pittsburgh in eight years, though it remainedl out of compliance with the lead and copper rule. 

October 19, 2018: PENNVEST grant.
PENNVEST, a state authority that funds sewer, storm water and drinking water projects, awarded the PWSA $49 million for lead line replacement; $35 million was a loan, and $13 million was a grant. The loans, Barca noted, had much lower interest rates than issuing debt through the public markets. The money came from the Drinking Water State Revolving Funds. 

January 2020: Lead levels drop into EPA compliance
The PWSA ran its biannual lead test and lead levels finally fell to 10 ppb, below the EPA threshold of 15 ppb. The PWSA was still required to remove more lead pipes under the lead and copper rule. 

McLaughlin attributed the drop in lead levels to the orthophosphate taking effect. 

In July 2020, it ran its lead test once again — this time testing 158 households instead of the required 100 — and found lead levels of 5.1%, the city’s lowest in 20 years.

From 2016 to 2020, the PWSA replaced 7,400 lead lines. It was no longer mandated to continue removing lead lines under the lead and copper rule, but the authority decided to continue at the same pace. Barca said the continued removal was a decision to try to rebuild public trust. 

“We really leaned on that to say, you know, that’s the old PWSA. Here’s the new PWSA. Here’s our plan to replace lead. Here’s all the programs available for folks who may know that they have led in their house but need help getting it out or need help replacing their lines,” Barca said. “We’ve done a really good public relations campaign on our end, and we continue to do so to get that message out.”

July 5, 2021: The PWSA has removed half of the city’s lead lines.
The PWSA announced that it had replaced 8,500 lead lines and it was on track for its goal of replacing every lead line in the the city by 2026.

2021: National focus on infrastructure.
Between EPA guidelines, the American Rescue Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the country had a renewed focus on getting rid of lead pipes. Municipalities around the country began competing for grants and loans and struggling to keep pace with what was newly required of them.

Some municipalities that had been in compliance with federal rules were suddenly out of compliance, Via said, and had to begin the inventory process that Pittsburgh had struggled with while trying to compete for grants. 

“One thing that folks are struggling with is the definition of what has to be incorporated into the inventory, and then subsequently removed, has changed over time. And so even folks who were ahead of the game, have to back up a step and then forward again, because they’ve got a new definition of what they’ve got to look for to remove,” Via said.

2022: An influx of federal money
Many cities were competing fiercely for federal funds, but the PWSA didn’t find the grant process very difficult, Barca said.

“By the time the infrastructure bill was passed,” Barca said, “We were already a well oiled machine.”

In 2022, the PWSA received $7 million in loans and grants from PENNVEST, a $5 million grant from the IIJA, and $17 million from Pittsburgh’s American Rescue Plan funds. In 2023, it received more than $27 million of various grants and loans from the IIJA and a $500,000 COVID-19 PA Small Water and Sewer Grant. 

February 24, 2023: The PWSA replaces its 10,000th lead line
That works out to roughly 59 miles of lead service lines. The 10,000th pipe was in Hazelwood neighborhood of Pittsburgh. 

February 20, 2024: The vice president visits
McLaughlin said that, for all of the milestones the PWSA has reached, Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit was one of the most memorable. 

“The neighborhood she ultimately came to visit was Homewood. And after the meeting, I talked to some of the residents and they were like, ‘How did she end up at Homewood? What happened?'” McLaughlin said. “I was trying to get her here! We did a lot of lead service line work.”

McLaughlin said it was meaningful to see the PWSA’s work highlighted on a national stage, and after the vice president’s visit, the PWSA noticed an uptick in calls about its lead service line removal process from other cities and utility providers. 

Since 2021, the PWSA has offered advice to around 20 other water authorities and utility providers, McLaughlin said. 

April 25, 2024: The PWSA removes its 11,000th lead service line
This year, the PWSA also received $32 million from the IIJA; $18 million of that is loans, $13 million is grants. 

Barca said the authority is still on track for its goal of removing 100% of Pittsburgh’s lead pipes by 2026. It’s possible that the remaining pipes will be more complicated to replace, as Pittsburgh’s topography is very complicated, but Barca is confident that the PWSA will reach its self-imposed deadline. 

The EPA has revised the lead and copper rule so that 10 ppb, rather than 15, is the threshold for replacing lead pipes. 

The agency has also implemented new guidelines for how it will disburse its IIJA funds, including requiring municipalities to create inventories of their lead service lines, requiring removal of entire service lines rather than parts, and restricting certain grants to galvanized service lines that are or were downstream of lead service lines. 

The EPA is looking to implement a 10-13 year window to replace all lead service lines, Via said. Municipalities that will be affected by that rule can learn from Pittsburgh.

“[Pittsburgh] started in 2016. We are in 2024,” Via said. “They still have 6000 lines out of 16,000… Pittsburgh is an example of just how challenging that task is.”

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