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PWSA To Spend $50M To Replace Lead Pipes

Kathleen J. Davis
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh's water authority will spend $50 million to replace lead service lines, give filters to low-income residents, and take other steps to address the city's lead crisis under a settlement approved Thursday by state utility regulators.

The move comes a week after the Pennsylvania attorney general's office filed criminal charges against the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, alleging it mishandled a lead pipe replacement program in 2016 and 2017 and put more than 150 households at elevated risk of lead poisoning. The authority, which had previously admitted civil liability in the case and was fined $2.4 million by state environmental regulators, is fighting the charges.

Clean-water advocates hailed Thursday's settlement as a significant step toward reducing lead levels in the city's drinking water, and as a model for other cities also struggling with lead.

"The people of Pittsburgh have been drinking lead-contaminated water for far too long. This settlement requires aggressive, affordable solutions to protect public health and hold officials accountable to the people they serve," Dimple Chaudhary, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.

Chaudhary, who was part of a lawsuit over lead water pipes in Flint, Michigan represented a coalition of Pittsburgh community, labor, religious and environmental groups in the water authority's rate case before the Public Utility Commission.

The utility agreed to accelerate its existing lead line replacement program, promising to swap out 3,800 of its own water lines and 2,800 privately owned lines, at no charge to residents, this year and next. The money will come from grants and a loan from the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority, or Pennvest, which funds sewer, storm water and drinking water projects throughout the state.

“Effectively what that funding provides is an offset to funding that we would have gotten through a standard, bonded debt,” said Bob Weimar, the authority’s Executive Director. “That $50 million includes about $14 or so million of grants and about $35 million of loan.”

Other provisions require the water agency to focus its replacement program on neighborhoods at greatest risk of lead exposure, increase outreach to residents who refuse to get their water lines replaced, make more residents eligible for free filters and replacement cartridges, and restrict the use of partial lead line replacements, a practice that can lead to temporary spikes of lead in the water.

The authority is under a mandate to replace at least 7 percent of its lead service lines each year due to elevated lead levels in drinking water. Lead can cause brain damage and other lifelong injuries, especially in children.

Weimar called it "an agreeable settlement that considers our most vulnerable customers, while also providing the investments needed to be the water, sewer, and storm water utility Pittsburgh expects and deserves."

Customers' bills are going up substantially. Regulators approved a 14 percent rate increase, meaning a typical residential customer will pay nearly $9 more per month. The authority originally asked for a 16.7 percent increase, but Weimar said the new rate won’t affect their work in the community.

“Frankly, the final decision by the commission, while it wasn’t everything we wanted, is certainly fair and reasonable and it will allow us to continue many of the projects that we’ve started,” Weimar said.

The coalition Pittsburgh United, represented by lawyers from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Pennsylvania Utility Law Project, advised in the PUC case. Executive Director Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy said the group wanted to ensure the rate increase was equitable.

“It’s always difficult for our community when there’s a rate increase,” Kennedy said. “But we know that we need to continue investing in our infrastructure so that people can have safe water.”

Low-income customers will get a bigger discount than they do now, a 75 percent reduction for eligible residents.

The rate hike will yield $21 million in new revenue for a water utility that has been trying to address decades of mismanagement, heavy debt, billing problems, chronic understaffing, elevated lead levels and a dilapidated system that loses 50 percent of the treated water it produces to broken pipes.

State lawmakers placed the authority — which an independent consultant once called a "failed organization atop a dangerous and crumbling structure" — under the control of the Public Utility Commission last year.

WESA's Katie Blackley contributed to this report.