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Getting Right With Pennsylvania Will Cost PWSA More Than $7 Million This Year

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
At its regular meeting on Friday, April 20, the PWSA board approved a bigger budget in order to pass regulatory muster.

The board of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority voted Friday to increase the 2018 budget by about $12 million. They approved money to cover the costs of complying with brand new regulations—and some old ones—as well as to fund urgent repair work.

A big chunk of the increase, about $7 million, comes from the costs of organizing PWSA to meet the requirements of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC), according to chief of administration Debbie Lestitian. PUC began its oversight of PWSA on April 1.

But another sum of money was required to clear up PWSA’s past compliance issues with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said executive director Bob Weimar.

“We’ve [now] taken a very hard line that every report’s going to go in, it’s going to go in on time and it’s going to complete,” he said. “In establishing that we had some changes in how we execute the work, and we had some increases in cost, because things weren’t being done [before].”

For example, for many years PWSA had not written a plan to map, test and recommend improvements for Municipal Separate Storm Sewers (MS4) as required by the EPA.

“That compliance plan added $2 million to the budget,” said Weimar.

Regulatory compliance is a two-way street. While the PUC, DEP and EPA all need things from PWSA, the authority needs approval for its plans to move forward with things like restoring the Highland 1 reservoir, and implementing a new chemical control plan. During Veolia’s management of PWSA, a change in water treatment accelerated rising lead levels.

As PWSA advances its lead line replacement programs, officials determined through a series of studies that the best way to limit lead exposure for the most number of people would be to add orthophosphates to the water. The authority is still waiting on DEP approval to make the change.

“At the end of the day, the most important thing is to get the orthophosphates added to the water because that will help every resident and anyone that uses our water,” said Jim Turner, a board member.

Weimar said DEP and PWSA now meet weekly.

“We’re going to get immediate decisions, we’re going to memorialize them...and we’ll be able to move much more quickly with the projects we have at hand,” he said, adding that he is encouraged by DEP’s responsiveness.

Since the construction season opened a few weeks ago, crews contracted by PWSA have replaced 60 lead service lines, both the public and private sides. In order to meet a DEP requirement to replace 2,100 lead lines by the end of 2018, PWSA will contract additional crews. Eventually, they hope to replace 100 lead lines per week.

The long Pittsburgh winter made a brief appearance when the board voted to approve $2.3 million for urgent water repair contracts.

“It was a rough January,” said Weimar, referencing the record number of breaks the authority dispatched crews to fix.

Another budget change involved Weimar himself: he is now a PWSA employee, instead of a contractor.

“I’m pleased to have the opportunity to serve the development and growth of our water, sewer and stormwater system,” he said.

Board chair Paul Leger said as far as the directors are concerned, nothing about Weimar’s role is different.

“He’s officially a member of the family,” Leger joked. “He’s adopted.”

Margaret J. Krauss is WESA’s senior reporter. She covers development and transportation, and has produced award-winning podcasts on housing, work, and Pittsburgh’s lesser-known history. Before joining the newsroom full time, she covered the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities as a statewide reporter, and spent another life as an assistant editor for National Geographic Kids Magazine in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at mkrauss@wesa.fm.
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