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Politics & Government

Activists say Wilkinsburg-Penn Joint Water Authority should address concerns about lead, water costs

lead_pipe.jpg
Irina Zhorov
/
Keystone Crossroads

A group of advocates are calling on a local water authority to create a program to assist low-income customers who need help paying their bills, and to fully replace lead service lines in the communities it serves that suffer from higher rates of lead poisoning.

They say the Wilkinsburg-Penn Joint Water Authority, which serves about 40,000 customers in Pittsburgh’s eastern suburbs, should also create a community advisory committee related to lead issues, and end partial lead line replacements, which can exacerbate lead problems.

The agency did not respond to inquiries.

Residents should have water that is both affordable and safe, said Talor Musil, health policy manager at Women for a Healthy Environment, one of the organizations, along with Get The Lead Out, Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh United’s Our Water campaign, pushing for the changes.

They plan to hold a rally outside the water authority’s monthly board meeting on Robinson Blvd. in Wilkinsburg on Tuesday evening.

Musil and others point to lead testing results from the authority posted online that show an increase in lead levels in recent years (though the amount remains below the allowable level of 15 parts per billion) and the fact that a number of the communities WPJWA serves have high incidences of childhood lead poisoning (though lead pipes are not the only potential source of lead poisoning).

Lead is a neurotoxin that is particularly harmful to young children; lead poisoning is irreversible.

Wilkinsburg resident Ashley Comans said when she heard about the campaign around the agency’s water, she was concerned, as the mother of a two-year-old.

“Drinking water in my house should not be a health risk,” she said. Comans said her family uses a water filter.

Lead is not present in water that leaves the WPJWA treatment facility or in its water mains, according to information posted on the agency’s website. “However, lead can be present in old service lines connecting homes to the water system or in-home plumbing,” it notes.

WPJWA is the fifth largest water authority in the state, according to its website. It serves Braddock Hills, Chalfant, Churchill, East McKeesport, East Pittsburgh, Edgewood, Forest Hills, North Braddock, Pitcairn, Rankin, Swissvale, Trafford, Turtle Creek, Wilkinsburg, Wilkins Township, Wilmerding and parts of Braddock, Monroeville, Penn Hills, North Huntington, North Versailles and Pittsburgh, according to its website. Its 13 board members come from some of the communities the authority serves.

Other local utilities have dealt with similar issues; The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority has replaced thousands of lead service lines since 2016.

Earlier this year, the state announced a $9.3 million grant from the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority (PENNVEST) to the Wilkinsburg Penn Joint Water Authority to replace around 1,000 lead service lines, or 40,000 feet of piping.

This summer, three Democratic state legislators – Sen. Jay Costa, state Rep. Summer Lee and state Rep. Ed Gainey – sent letters to the board of directors and WPJWA’s executive director, calling on the agency to establish a Community Lead Response Advisory Committee that could give feedback on how to improve communication, and weigh in on lead line inventorying and replacement.

“Since the notice of award by PENNVEST, we are aware the Authority has held several meetings among staff regarding this project. We believe as part of the process it’s important for the Authority to create a comprehensive community engagement strategy to further increase community responsiveness, increase transparency, and ensure everyone impacted by the project gets the greatest benefit possible from this funding,” the legislators wrote.

Several other local utilities have customer assistance programs to help low-income residents pay their bills.

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority has several programs to help low-income customers, though it has faced criticism in the past for low enrollment in some of the programs. Its bill discount program gives eligible customers a discount on the first 1,000 gallons of water, and the hardship cash assistance program is to help forgive arrearages.

Pennsylvania American Water also offers discounts to low-income customers and grants through Dollar Energy Fund.

While not addressing WPJWA specifically, generally speaking, municipal utilities tend to have fewer consumer protections than those that are subject to the oversight of the Public Utility Commission, said Elizabeth Marx, executive director of the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project, which assists low-income utility customers.

"What must be included on a termination notice, how long people have to bring their account current, access to payment arrangements, what kinds of fees can be charged, whether or not somebody with a medical issue can be terminated, whether or not consumers can be shut off in the winter time, all of those kinds of things that we're used to in the large electric, gas and regulated water companies in Pennsylvania, none of them exist or exist in a very truncated manner,” for municipally-run utilities, said Marx.

Fortunately, I'm able to pay my water bill,” Wilkinsburg resident Comans said. “But to know that there is no consistent option of support for people who may need help with their bills offered [through] our water authority was also troubling because, you know, we're all going through a rough time right now.”