18:30 PM

The Fight for Clean Drinking Water in McKeesport

Pitt engineers receive more than $230k to determine if McKeesport residents can safely drink their water after contamination from an area fire

It was a normal July day in McKeeport’s Lower 10th Ward, a neighborhood across the Youghiogheny River from the city center. During an afternoon of heavy summer storms on Friday, July 16, 2021, residents heard what sounded like an explosion and then lost electricity in their homes. At the time, they didn’t know it would herald a years-long battle against contaminated water. 

The McKeesport Fire Department arrived at McKeesport Auto Body at 5:24 p.m., reported the Tube City Almanac. A downed tree pulled electric wires onto the shop, located at the 600 block of Rebecca Street, perpendicular from the 10th Ward and up a steep hill. Initially just a routine “wires-down” call, a fire broke out shortly after firefighters arrived. One of the downed wires carrying 4,000 volts had electrically charged the building and created a potentially fatal situation for those at the scene attempting to open a window or spray a hose. Once the power was shut off, firefighters focused on stopping the quickly escalating fire from spreading to surrounding buildings and homes. Crews from Armstong and Westmoreland counties, as well as Pittsburgh International Airport, struggled to control the blaze for several hours. 

The following Saturday on July 17 the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County (MAWC) issued a water advisory for residents and businesses within the Lower 10th Ward and shut off the area’s water supply system. Residents were left completely without water for approximately 37 hours – no tap water, no showers, no bathroom, no laundry. 

McKeesport Fire

“When I woke up on Saturday morning, I had absolutely no water in my house,” Barb Girgash, who lives within walking distance of the fire, said. “The taps were turned off. Everything was shut down.” 

As a result of certain chemicals used to combat the fire the day before, the area’s water supply was contaminated with PFAS – perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. PFAS can cause a number of health concerns, including various types of cancer, decreased birth weights, thyroid problems, and immune system issues. PFAS doesn’t break down in the environment and can build up in the body over long periods of time - hence their nickname, “forever chemicals”.

When the water was turned back on, it still couldn’t be used for cooking, drinking, or bathing. Residents showered at their family’s homes or at the local high school. The MAWC provided water buffalos and bottled water as they flushed the water supply system. Women for a Healthy Environment distributed ZeroWater filters, which are effective in removing two types of PFAS chemicals called PFOA and PFOS.

Residents and businesses in the Lower 10th Ward lived without safe drinking water for almost a month.  

“Doing laundry, making dinner…everyday, mundane things. We couldn’t do that,” Girgash said.

Pitt joins the fight against forever chemicals

Carla Ng, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, was contacted by Women for a Healthy Environment a couple of months after the fire to begin testing the drinking water in the Lower 10th Ward. 

Ng has devoted much of her career to studying common sources of PFAS contamination — like food packaging — and collaborating to create roadmaps that reduce non-essential uses of PFAS, stop human and environmental exposure from getting worse, and more equitably distribute the associated costs.

Ng Lab

Her team began testing in fall 2021. The results found two homes had very high levels of PFOS contamination, known to be bioaccumulative and toxic. Because of the severity of those results, Pitt researchers quickly received a $234,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, from the “Mechanism for the Time Sensitive Research Opportunities in Environmental Health Sciences” program, to field a larger study, called the “Studying AFFF Fate and Exposure to Pursue Outcomes that Restore trust: SAFE PORT,” over the next two years. 

“Given that the levels of PFOS were still so high six months after the fire, we were concerned there was some contamination that was sticking around,” Ng said. “This is why we wanted to follow up and do more testing to see if this was just a one-off instance or if more homes were affected.”  

The Community Meeting 

On a chilly February night in 2023, around 20 community members gathered in the basement of the West Side United Methodist Church in the Lower 10th Ward to hear Ng’s most recent findings — more than two-and-a-half years after the initial fire. 

Most of them had the same question: Is it safe to drink our water? 

Community Meeting

The meeting was scheduled shortly after Pennsylvania set new standards on PFAS chemicals. There is no national standard for PFAS maximum contaminant level (MCL), so individual states set their own. With these new developments, residents were curious to hear how they fared in Ng’s recent study. 

Ng leads these community meetings after each set of results are available. Girgash - whose home was within walking distance of the fire - always attends. This is the second time she participated in testing with Pitt and she also received testing from MAWC. After years of still relying on filtered and bottled water for herself and her pet cat, Sassy, Girgash was anxious to receive her results; however, she’s been frustrated with the lack of interest from those who live in the community. 

“I find it really disheartening that others don’t share the same level of concern that I do,” Girgash said. “Myself and maybe two other neighbors always come to the meetings, but that’s usually it.” 

Sixteen homes – 13 inside and 3 outside the affected area – were sampled in fall 2022 for Ng’s most recent study. Ng and her team examined tap water from three locations in each house: the kitchen, the bathroom, and laundry taps. MAWC has also engaged in its own testing and representatives were present at February’s meeting.

Initially, Ng’s team’s findings showed PFOS to be below Pennsylvania’s MCL, while PFOA – another PFAS compound – levels were at or above the state’s standard. The MAWC found contaminants to be well below the state’s threshold.

Ng and MAWC employed two different methods for testing for PFAS. The Authority used the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-approved method for testing drinking water which utilizes a certified lab for testing. The method used by Ng, called 1633, is still in development by the EPA, but was chosen by Ng’s team because of its ability to detect a wide range of PFAS compounds.

“With 1633, we’re able to get a broader understanding of contamination levels in the Lower 10th Ward,” Ng explained. 

Water Filters

The biggest difference between the two methods is the volume of water being used – with Ng’s team using double the amount than the MAWC.

The different results left residents confused.

“I had a conversation with one of my neighbors, and we’re both in the same predicament. We just don’t know,” Girgash said at the time. “Until I know anything different, I’ll be filtering my water.” 

What now for the Lower 10th Ward? 

Ng was determined to find out why the results were different to provide answers for the Lower 10th Ward. 

“It’s something I’m really interested in because the two methods presumably should give the same value, and if they don’t, that raises questions about the method Pitt is using or what the MAWC is using,” Ng said.   

Ng’s team found the answer; a volume error in a piece of code. After a correction, the new results fell well-in-line with the MAWC’s. 

“This is good news for the Lower 10th Ward,” Ng said. “Both of our results show that contamination levels are well within the MCL for the state of Pennsylvania.” 

Based on both findings by Pitt and the Authority, the MAWC’s method of flushing water through area hydrants has been successful in lowering levels of PFAS contamination. According to the MAWC, for one home, total levels of PFAS decreased from 64 parts per thousand (ppt) after the fire in 2021 to undetectable the following August. 

Ng and her team plan on continuing research in the area, hoping to include more homes for water testing, and with their attention now also turning to the area’s soil. 

“The soil is where the PFAS went when the hydrants were flushed, so the next thing we want to see is if some of that PFAS was transferred into the ground,” Ng explained. 

In light of the recent announcement from the EPA and their proposed MCLs for PFOA and PFOS, Ng and her group will also revisit the data from previous testing to see how it compares with the EPA’s suggested threshold for the chemicals. 

For Girgash, there’s still too many unknowns about drinking the water in her home. 

“I don’t want to say that I’m making more out of this than I should – maybe there’s nothing to be made out of it. Maybe everything’s ok. That’s kind of where I’m at,” Girgash said about her concerns. “But, I still don’t think a level of anything is safe.”