11 Investigates: Discolored tap water, lead levels plague PWSA customers

PITTSBURGH — While customers deal with elevated lead levels and discolored tap water, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority is still investigating what’s causing the problems.

A spokesman for the agency said on Thursday that older service lines going into homes are to blame for the elevated lead levels. PWSA spokesman Brendan Schubert said even though the problem is the responsibility of homeowners, the utility is working with those affected to find a solution.

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“Our source water -- the water coming out of the water treatment plant -- does not have lead in it. The DEP did an independent test and it showed that,” Schubert said.

He added the agency has contacted many customers directly.

“We’re starting to go through the process of retesting them,” Schubert said.

The PWSA confirmed that a total of 81,000 residents in several Pittsburgh neighborhoods received letters from them on Monday regarding elevated lead levels in tap water. Of 100 homes in the Brighton Heights neighborhood, 17 were above the Department of Environmental Protection’s "safe” level.

At least four of the homes had lead levels that were at least three times higher than what’s considered safe.

“Now I don’t know whether my water is safe. Have we been drinking it for years like this? Lead poisoning is very dangerous, so fear was one of the first things that went through my mind," Tina Beam, of Brighton Heights, said.

When it comes to the lead levels, PennFuture CEO Larry Schweiger isn’t hiding his concern.

"We need to be careful how we're treating our kids, that's my first reaction. This is a very troubling pattern here,” he said.

The letter to residents comes less than four months after the PWSA was cited for violating the safe drinking water standards when it switched chemicals used to treat lead due to cost and equipment issues without informing the DEP. After 14 months, the PWSA switched back in January.

"We need to do everything we can as a community to make sure every child, regardless of economic status, has protection in their drinking water,” Schweiger said. "I don't believe there's been that kind of response. They should have been monitoring this all along."

Since the last lead test was taken in 2013, it’s unclear if the elevated levels are linked to the change.

A spokesman for the DEP told Channel 11 News the agency is reviewing PWSA records and the utility will likely face a fine. Channel 11 also learned Gov. Tom Wolf had been briefed on the situation.

Many PWSA customers have had other problems with their tap water quality, including discoloration, over the past several weeks. Last month, Channel 11 News reported brown water in Aspinwall. Since then, Channel 11 has logged reports of brown water in Homewood, Squirrel Hill, East Hills, the North Side and the South Side.

The problems have affected not just homeowners, but also people who are in public places. On Wednesday, flag football players on the South Side noticed their tap water was discolored, and the group ended up buying 900 bottles of water so that campers could hydrate safely.

"If you want to dip your head in there to cool off, that's fine. But from a drinking standpoint, everyone is using bottled water right now,” said Chris Curd, of the Pittsburgh Flag Football League. “It's really disheartening to see the news report last night on WPXI of other youth organizations having the exact problem. Seeing that the water is brown, the PWSA and public works has got to step up and take care of this."

Beam also said she’s switching to bottled water while she waits to find out if her water is safe to drink.

She said she’s contacted the PWSA multiple times but couldn’t get anyone on the phone to give her an answer.

Officials at the agency said they have added staff to field more calls and get customers the answers they’re demanding. PWSA said anyone who needs to report an issue should either call 412-255-2423 or send an email to info@pgh2o.com.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto met with the PWSA’s interim director Thursday afternoon, but it was unclear what was discussed.

Stay with Channel 11 News and WPXI.com for continuing coverage.