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KDKA Investigates: Thousands In City Drinking Lead-Contaminated Water And Don't Know It

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Lead in the water can cause brain damage and a host of other medical problems.

Here in Pittsburgh people are demanding clean water - especially parents with small children.

But if you live in the city you and your family may be drinking it whether you know it or not. About 20,000 Pittsburgh households have lead service lines delivering water into their homes and between 20 and 30 percent of those lines are suspected of leaching high levels of lead.

That means people in up to 6,000 homes or apartment houses are drinking water with dangerous lead levels.

Yet to date, there is no call to action -- no definitive plan to ensure safe drinking water.

KDKA's Andy Sheehan: Isn't that a health emergency?
PWSA Chairman Alex Thomson: It is. It is. It absolutely is.

City Council has a proposal to provide water pitcher filters to families with kids and the authority is looking at providing tap filters to any family who wants one.

"Something we're looking at. Something we want to roll out as quickly as possible. Especially to people of a socioeconomic basis that can't handle it themselves," said Thomson.

But water filters are only a stop gap. The real solution is replacing those lead service lines, but the replacement of those lines is moving at a snail's pace.

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It's expensive and a bureaucratic headache for anyone who wants to replace theirs.

If you test high for lead in your water you call PWSA and they will place the lead service line only to the edge of your property. You then have to have a plumber to replace the portion of line to your house.

The process is expensive, can cost you several thousands of dollars, and is slow.

Sheehan: That's a terribly inefficient way of doing things.
Thompson: Absolutely. Absolutely and you know what the problem is? You know what the problem is Andy ? The law has to be changed.

State law says public employees can't work on private property, so you're on the hook. PWSA wants an exception to the law so it can do the whole job.

The authority is also looking into a residential assistance program to help reduce the cost.

But like the water filters, these are still only proposals -- and critics say the city and the PWSA is dragging its feet in dealing with a public health crisis.

"There is no urgency whatsoever and or even a recognition of the problem that we have," Wagner said.

PWSA is boring holes in the ground throughout residential neighborhoods and using fiber-optic cameras to painstakingly identify and map location of each lead service line in the city -- a process that is expected to take six years.

The authority is also under orders to replacement them over the next 12 years, but that's way too slow according to county controller Chelsa Wagner, who's calling for a citywide blitz and on government to pay for it.

"If we have the funding that we can put to development projects and all of those sorts of things and we're not going to preserve the most fundamental resource that we have which is water," said Wagner.

Said Thomson: "We fully acknowledge there is a crisis. It's a public health crisis. We have to address it. We have to address it in the right way."

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