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North Hills Monthly

Is Pittsburgh’s Water Safe to Drink?

Feb 26, 2016 05:38PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch
After the Flint, MI, water disaster, in which significant amounts of lead were found in the city’s drinking water adversely affecting the population, it is only natural to wonder: Is our drinking water safe here in Pittsburgh? We spoke with the executive director of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA), James L. Good, who explained the safeguards that keep Pittsburgh’s water toxin-free.

North Hills Monthly: What is the function of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority?
James L. Good: It is a municipal authority with a board appointed by the city of Pittsburgh; a legally independent entity that provides treated drinking water to most of the residents of Pittsburgh and surrounding communities and also provides sewer collection that serves the entire city. We take care of the entire infrastructure of the water and sewer systems, including 900 miles of water line.

We are a full-service authority, providing customer service, engineering and accounting. Our crews go out and fix broken water mains and sewer lines. In the last three years, we’ve put a lot of attention toward green infrastructure, a way to use natural systems to manage stormwater flow and pollution.

NHM: How far is the reach of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority—how many water customers do you have, including any in the northern suburbs?
Good: A customer is a connection or a meter—we have approximately 80,000 water customers and about 110,000 sewer customers. Our area includes Aspinwall, Reserve and Millvale, and some emergency service agreements in other boroughs. 

NHM: What is the source of Pittsburgh’s drinking water?
Good: The Allegheny River. When I came out here from California, I thought, ‘You can’t use the water out of a river in Pittsburgh,’ but the Allegheny is really pretty clean. Most of the industrial development was on the Mon. We have a well-run water treatment plant, so if there are any contaminants, they are removed before they are introduced into the water system.

NHM: In general, how safe is the water in Pittsburgh?
Good: Very safe. The source water, to start off with, is very good. We are, like any water supplier in the country, required to ensure that it meets federal standards established by the U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). We have not had a water quality violation in 30 years, since before the Water Authority was established. We are very proud of our record, but we don’t rest on our laurels. It’s something that you have to be vigilant about. We have to continually look at different ways to treat water, with new technologies always coming out, to ensure the safety of drinking water for our customers.

NHM: What is the biggest threat to water safety in our region?
Good: We have to keep an eye on any fracking waste that might get in the water, but fortunately, we have not had any major problems because of fracking. We know places upriver where the runoff can potentially enter the river. We have a lot of advantages in the region; we share information with an organization called RAIN (River Alert Information Network), a cooperative organization that is made up of all drinking water systems that flow into the Ohio. If something were to happen upstream on the Allegheny, we would have that information. We also have four days of storage, if there is ever a major problem.

NHM: What is the role of the EPA in establishing safety standards?
Good: The EPA has a very rigorous methodology for determining what regulatory limits for particular contaminants can be. They’re continually looking at new potential threats. Now 90 things are regulated, including things like metals, certain pesticides, bacteria—things like that that can be introduced into the water supply or picked up from the natural environment.

NHM: What are some of the safeguards put into place by the PWSA?
Good: Our storage is one; we have the RAIN network; we have our own in-house lab, a plant, so we can test the water as frequently as we need to if we’re concerned about trends. Our plant itself has treatment processes in it. We have chlorine booster locations. Our number one job is to provide safe drinking water to our customers.  We take a lot of measures and spare no expense, 24 hours a day.

NHM: What is the cause and effect between water and disease?
Good: One of the greatest public health advances in the 20th century is the introduction of chlorine into drinking water to disinfect it. It is not an exaggeration to say that treated drinking water is what makes our civilization possible, to be able to live closely together and to rely on the water supply to be safe.

NHM: What is to prevent a Flint, MI, disaster from happening here?
Good: The lead is not in our water supply; there is trace, almost barely detectable amounts. Most of the lead that exists in drinking water gets into it because it leaches out of a service line or the plumbing in your house, particularly older homes. We understand the chemical properties of our water so we can adjust the corrosiveness of water to reduce the likelihood that lead will leach out of a service line, or plumbing, into water.

NHM: In general, can city of Pittsburgh residents feel safe when they drink a cup of water from their taps?
Good: Yes, but if they have any concerns, they can call our lab at 412-782-7554 for a free test kit.