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Senate Could Vote On PWSA Oversight Bill This Week

Governor Tom Wolf
The Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg on Aug. 21, 2015.

The Pennsylvania Senate could vote Monday or Tuesday on whether to put the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority under state oversight.

A bill that would empower the Public Utility Commission to oversee the embattled agency has been pending before the full Senate since June 30. When the chamber returns from summer recess Monday, it will have two days to act on the measure. Without action by Tuesday, the bill will be removed from the Senate calendar with the possibility of later consideration.

House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Marshall) and Rep. Harry Readshaw (D-Carrick) introduced the bill in June, citing widespread reports of mounting debt, billing issues and aging infrastructure at PWSA. In the summer of 2016, the agency notified customers that lead levels in its drinking water had exceeded federal standards.

“Regulatory oversight is needed to fix this deteriorating system and restore the confidence of PWSA’s customers,” Reps. Turzai and Readshaw said in a statement in May.

The bill passed the House in early June with no votes opposed. It received unanimous approval from the Senate Appropriations Committee later that month and, since then, has been awaiting a vote in the full chamber.

PWSA announced in July that lead levels had returned to federally sanctioned levels, but in late August a consultant reported that the agency has been plagued by widespread neglect and disrepair. Among a host of issues, Infrastructure Management Group, Inc. found that PWSA's distribution system loses 50 percent of the clean water it produces.

Sen. Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) said Friday she expects the proposal for state oversight to win broad support in the Senate.

“It’s not a partisan issue in the legislature,” she said. “You have Republicans and Democrats working together to try to fix this."

If the Senate approves the bill, it will head to Gov. Tom Wolf. A spokesman said the governor supports the bill.

Ward said state oversight would allow residents to hold PWSA accountable by appealing to the Public Utility Commission. As an independent body run by a board of directors appointed by the mayor, PWSA has been immune to consumer complaints, Ward said.

“Since those people aren’t elected that are on this board, there’s really nowhere for folks to go, and in this case, you have a real mess,” she said.

With state oversight, PWSA would be subject to monetary penalties if it fails to meet safety and service standards, according to Turzai and Readshaw’s May statement.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has said he supports the representatives’ proposal, as long as it comes with funding and protects PWSA from privatization.

Photo Credit: Governor Tom Wolf / Flickr