Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro
has filed 161 criminal charges against the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority (PWSA) for violating the Pennsylvania Safe Drinking Water Act multiple times, according to a Friday press release.
The third-degree misdemeanors — one for each household affected by PWSA’s violations — are for failing to notify residents about lead water-line replacement and not sampling the new lines within the time frame required.
PWSA first noticed in 2016 that lead levels in its pipe systems exceeded the state maximum levels of toxicity. As a response, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection told PWSA it must replace seven percent of service lines to lower the lead levels.
Under state law, a water utility must also let residents using the system know about line replacements at least 45 days beforehand and must analyze the lead content of replaced lines within 72 hours of installment. Replacing service lines can cause temporary increases in lead levels in drinking water.
PWSA has admitted to failing to follow through with these requirements multiple times. The maximum penalty for each count they face is one year in prison and a fine between $1,250 to $12,500.
Shapiro says the charges are being filed against PWSA alone because there is no evidence of one single person trying to hurt any residents. He plans to arrange it so potential PWSA fines will be directed to local public-health programs.
“This money isn’t going to a fund in Harrisburg – it’s coming back here to neighborhoods like Lawrenceville that were affected by these violations,” Shapiro says in a press release. “I hope that, with these charges, we can shine a light on these violations and force the necessary reforms to take shape to keep Pittsburgh’s drinking water safe.”
Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner issued a statement in response to Shapiro’s announcement, claiming the charges show PWSA and the city’s slow initial response to the lead crisis. PWSA had estimated it needed to replace 1,341 lead lines by June 30, 2017 to meet the 7 percent requirement, but only managed to replace 415 lines by that point.
Wagner called on elected officials to be more involved in water-safety efforts.
“The Mayor, City Council, and other public officials and agencies providing oversight must build on the recent progress that has been made and finally deliver to the people of Pittsburgh the public, accountable water provider they expect and deserve,” Wagner says in a press release.
But Alissa Weinman, a senior organizer with Our Water Campaign
, wonders why Shapiro has only investigated PWSA and not Veolia
, a private French company that provided management services to PWSA from 2012 to 2015.
In Oct. 2016, PWSA sued Veolia for several alleged failures
including a mishandled change in chemicals used to control corrosion in lead pipes. Veolia has been charged similarly in the past, including for their work in Flint, Mich.
“While it’s important for Shapiro to take action to address Pittsburgh’s lead crisis, why is he only focusing on the authority that was left to pick up the pieces after a failed privatization contract, instead of the corporation — with a disastrous track record — that managed the authority when the lead crisis was triggered?” Weinman says in the release.
PWSA and Veolia compromised and resolved all charges in January 2018. As part of the resolution, Veolia will contributing $500,000 to a Pittsburgh-based community organization while PWSA will save $5 million, the amount sought by Veolia’s claim.