While PWSA and Veolia squabble over who’s to blame, some call for quicker action to address Pittsburgh’s lead crisis | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

While PWSA and Veolia squabble over who’s to blame, some call for quicker action to address Pittsburgh’s lead crisis

“It seems to me that there’s so much we don’t know, but from everything I’ve reviewed it seems there’s culpability to be shared.”

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“If I had been on PWSA’s board at the time that the board was considering bringing in Veolia, I would’ve voted against it,” McMorland says. “The way to hold the city accountable for what has happened here is to make sure we don’t privatize any part of PWSA in the future.”

But McMorland still believes Veolia should be held responsible for any issues that arose during its three-and-a-half-year contract with the city.

“It’s still true that while they were managing this authority, a potentially dangerous chemical switch was made. Either they horribly mismanaged the authority while they were being paid to do so, or they didn’t know about the switch and simply let it happen.”

For that reason, the Our Water campaign is calling on the state attorney general to file a lawsuit against Veolia. While Our Water supports the city’s lawsuit, it doesn’t believe it goes far enough.

“It’s kind of like if you went to a restaurant and you got food poisoning, and they offered to give you back $12 for your dinner instead of paying your hospital bills,” says McMorland. “We would like to see Attorney General Josh Shapiro bring a lawsuit against Veolia for the real damage they caused real people in Pittsburgh.”

In an audit released by City Controller Michael Lamb in June, he too was critical of Veolia. But he also placed blame on the authority for its handling of the lead crisis.

“I don’t think anyone has any confidence in PWSA and I don’t think the current administration has done enough to correct the problem,” Lamb says. “It seems like every time a problem like this comes along the response is, ‘Well, let’s appoint another task force to look at the problem.’”

Scientists stress that no level of lead is safe, and in the most recent round of testing done by PWSA, water pouring out of some faucets in Pittsburgh homes tested above the federal threshold for lead of 15 parts per billion. That’s why Lamb says he wants actual action by the city to address the problem.

“We need to commit to a long-term plan of infrastructure investment and improvement at the PWSA,” Lamb says. “We just keep stalling and kicking the can down the road. What we really need is actual work to get done.”

For Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner, that infrastructure investment starts with replacing the service lines that are leaching lead into the city’s water. An estimated 25 percent of Pittsburgh’s homes — some 20,000 — have lead service lines. 

The city estimates that replacing the lines would cost $410 million, but Wagner maintains it would cost far less. And a RAND Corporation report seems to agree. According to the research group’s analysis, complete replacement could cost anywhere between $50 million and the $410 million the city has estimated.

Wagner estimates it would cost $60 million, and could be completed in five years. Her estimate is based on the cost being paid by Pennsylvania American Water, which provides water to homes in Pittsburgh and surrounding suburbs. Penn American is replacing its lead lines for approximately $3,500 each, and Wagner believes PWSA could do it for less.

“My emphasis has continued to be on trying to bring truth and transparency to the actual cost of replacement,” Wagner says. 

Wagner has also been vocal about the importance of PWSA fully replacing lead service lines. In the past, PWSA has done only partial line replacements because both it and the city say state law prohibits replacement of the portion of any service line on private property.

But last month, Pittsburgh City Council approved legislation directing PWSA to do full replacements. 

Wagner is concerned that progress replacing the lines been slow. But she says that at least it’s a step in the right direction.

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