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Development & Transportation

State May Intervene At PWSA, While City Says It's Addressing Issue On Every Front

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
A road closure in Lawrenceville allowed a PWSA crew to fix a broken water main and open the fire hyrdants to clear the lines.

The City of Pittsburgh is working to address the issue of lead in drinking water "on every front," according to Mayoral spokesman Tim McNulty.

Pittsburgh City Council is considering a pair of bills proposed this week by Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration. One would require home sellers to disclose the presence of lead plumbing and the results of water quality testing. The other bill would authorize PWSA to replace the private portion of lead service lines, running from the curb to the house.

“To tackle that head on, the city introduced this legislation which is supported by the PWSA,” he said. “Basically, it would give us a vehicle to let us take charge of these private lines.”

The city and PWSA have maintained that the Municipal Authorities Act currently bars them from replacing private lines. Last month, officials clarified that case law based on that act prohibits PWSA from competing with private companies providing similar services.

But another bill in the state legislature, meant to free PWSA up to spend public money on private property, doesn’t modify that act.

“There’s some debate on how to actually change this,” said McNulty. “It comes from court orders related to the act. At any rate, that’s why we’re, on every front, trying to address the issue.”

Meanwhile, in Harrisburg, a bill that would put PWSA under Public Utility Commission (PUC) oversight passed unanimously in the House of Representatives last week. The bill was introduced by House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Marshall, and Rep. Harry Readshaw, D-Carrick, and on Monday was referred to the Senate committee on consumer protection and professional licensure.

“Everybody knows what a disaster [PWSA] is,” Turzai said. “It really needs significant guidance and direction from professionals at the Public Utility Commission.”

PWSA carries more than $750 million in debt and has been dogged by concerns about lead in the water, billing issues, and weaknesses in its infrastructure. While Maryland-based consultant Infrastructure Management Group Inc was hired in late April to assess the PWSA and provide recommendations for a potential restructuring of the authority, Turzai said the General Assembly couldn’t wait around for PWSA to, “quote unquote restructure. What does that mean?”

“The city of Pittsburgh clearly needs oversight. Let’s let them uncover what everybody’s been hiding for some time, I suspect people are hiding things,” he said. “Complete mismanagement and their unwillingness to deal with it for political purposes.”

PWSA has seen decades of disinvestment, and problems have not been addressed, said Kevin Acklin, the mayor’s chief of staff.

“This administration is digging into the problem,” he said. “We’re doing so in an open and transparent manner.”

The mayor welcomes the additional layer of oversight and public protection the PUC could provide to ensure PWSA becomes the kind of water system Pittsburgh residents deserve, said Acklin.

“We want help. We’re not afraid of PUC oversight.”

However, Acklin stressed that PUC oversight alone won’t solve the underlying issues at the authority, citing PWSA’s debt, issues with lead service lines and the prohibition on generating revenue by selling water to other municipalities. In addition, Acklin said some legislators have suggested PWSA should no longer be a public asset.

“We don’t want PUC oversight to be used as a back doorway to privatize the system,” he said.

When asked to confirm that there was no intent to privatize the system, Turzai said that’s not his job. “Privatization might be a good option for the city service of water and sewer. But that’s up to the Public Utility Commission to figure out. How do you improve the disaster in front of the residents of the city of Pittsburgh?”

The PUC doesn’t generally oversee municipal authorities, which is why legislative action is required. What tools the agency will have at its disposal depends on how the legislation emerges from the Senate, though Turzai said he didn’t expect many changes.