The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority is setting aside $1.8 million to assist low-income customers by replacing the private portions of their lead service lines.
The amount represents 75 percent of a penalty levied by to the state Department of Environmental Protection for exceeding the allowable limit of lead in drinking water and performing partial lead line replacements without giving proper notice to property owners.
The deal was finalized Friday as part of a consent order and agreement between PWSA and the DEP.
Directing a large portion of a state fine toward such a project is unusual, said Ronald Schwartz, acting director for DEP’s Southwest Regional Office.
“With all the discussion with Pittsburgh Water’s larger infrastructure needs, the last thing we want to do is have a lot of money going towards an all-penalty type approach,” he said. “We’d much rather have that money, and the bulk of the money, going toward a community environmental project like this.”
PWSA’s Interim Executive Director Bob Weimar said that should cover the cost for 500-600 lead line replacements.
Weimar said there will also likely be some subsidy available for non-low-income homeowners, and that the details of both assistance programs will be worked out within the next month.
“No matter what we do, the homeowners have to take action, but the question is how much of an investment will they need to make?” Weimar said.
Legislation introduced by State Senator Wayne Fontana and passed as part of the state budget bill allows PWSA to replace lead lines on private property. PWSA is in the process of developing a program to replace lines for low-income customers, which will need to be approved by the DEP. As the authority maps out where all of the lead service lines are, it will notify customers and continue to monitor lead levels.
The consent order and agreement also set deadlines for PWSA to replace at least 1,341 of the estimated 19,000 lead service lines in the system; to complete an inventory of all service lines in the system to see what they’re made of; and to complete an updated corrosion control study.
In April 2014, PWSA switched its corrosion control methods without DEP’s approval, switching to caustic soda from soda ash. The authority switched back to soda ash in 2016. In April of that year, the environmental agency required PWSA to examine what impacts that switch had had on the system and to communicate that information to consumers, while also submitting to the DEP a “corrosion control treatment feasibility study.”
The study asks PWSA to conduct a series of experiments to see what combination of physical and chemical elements best protects the system’s pipes.
Weimar said the authority is entering the final month of testing and will start implementing a new corrosion control plan in December. He said he expects that system to be up and running by the end of March 2018.
“Our principal action right now is to restore the corrosion control, so we can give people assurance that the water quality is acceptable for their use no matter who they are, what age level they are, that in fact the lead aspects of their water quality are being addressed,” Weimar said.
Far from being punitive, the latest agreement between PWSA and DEP is simply mapping a way forward for the authority to meet, if not exceed, regulatory requirements, said Schwartz.
“PWSA had already planned some preliminary work,” he said. “We’re simply putting more details and a more fine point on exactly what they need to do. And more importantly, deadlines by which they need to do it.”