Mayor Bill Peduto worries Aqua America may still try to purchase the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, a concern he addressed to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, or PUC, last week.
In a letter to PUC chairperson Gladys Brown Dutrieuille, Peduto said “rumors” of Aqua America attempting to purchase water utilities are going around Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. Specifically, “company officials [are] notifying elected officials of their interest in purchasing the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority.”
Peduto spokesperson Tim McNulty said the mayor chose not to name which elected officials had been contacted by the company. Nor did he name the “many others” who share his concern that “a private utility may try to take advantage of PWSA’s recent successes to benefit their bottom line, and not the ratepayers and residents of Pittsburgh.” Peduto added that his worry has only grown since Bryn Mawr-based Aqua America announced last October it would buy Peoples Gas in a $4.2 billion acquisition.
The October 2018 announcement came just months after Peoples said it planned to build a brand new water treatment plant on the northern shore of the Allegheny River and partner with Pittsburgh and PWSA to provide water to the region. That was news to PWSA, which learned of the idea only through an open letter Peoples CEO Morgan O’Brien published on the company’s website and in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
That proposal failed to attract public support, but a new private water and gas utility could threaten PWSA, Peduto wrote, if the merger between Aqua and Peoples wins PUC approval.
Aqua America representatives have not attempted to contact members of PWSA’s board of directors in more than a year-and-a-half, said chairman Paul Leger.
“It’s an open question what their intentions are,” he said. “But I will tell you that the mayor, city council and the board are committed to keeping this organization publicly owned and publicly operated.”
Leger, who has not seen the letter, characterized it as cautionary.
“And I appreciate that,” he said. “We’re happy to inform anyone that looks like becoming a vulture on this system that it is not for sale, it belongs to the people.”
Aqua America did not provide an interview, but in a statement the company said it respects the mayor’s sentiments and “will only assist if the city’s leadership asks us to.” The company wrote that it has “publicly stated our willingness to help the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority find a solution to the current issues it faces.” The statement did not reference any specific issues.
The PUC responded to Peduto to thank him for his letter. However, because there are a number of active cases before the commission, members were unable to comment.
PWSA remains vulnerable to outside interests because of the perception that it is still an ineffective utility, said Aly Shaw, who directs the Our Water, Our Rivers campaign.
“It’s hard to deny, as someone who has criticized PWSA a lot over the years, that they have made really incredible strides,” said Shaw. “Being more financially stable, having a more stable leadership team directing PWSA, they have a long-term plan to upgrade infrastructure and provide clean water and they’ve implemented a lot of new affordability programs.”
However, Shaw said Pennsylvania is friendly to privatization, and thinks companies such as Aqua America and Pennsylvania American Water will attempt to buy up water systems across the state.
*This report was updated at 1:59 p.m. to include more information.