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PWSA Board Votes To Terminate Cooperation Agreement With The City

Jake Savitz
90.5 WESA

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority board on Monday voted to terminate its cooperation agreement with the City of Pittsburgh and negotiate a new one.

This story was updated at 4:10 on Feb. 4, 2019

The last time the City of Pittsburgh and PWSA talked about their relationship, really hashed it out, President Clinton was in his first term. A lot has changed since then, said city councilor Deb Gross, who is also a PWSA board member.

“I don’t think we should continue forward with the 1995 coop agreement that is so murky or doesn’t speak to so many current issues.”

The agreement was signed June 15, 1995, and took effect retroactively on Jan. 1, 1995. It was supposed to last for 40 years, but a provision allowed PWSA or the city to terminate it with 90 days’ notice. The agreement determined particulars such as how much free water the city gets — 600,000,000 gallons each year — and who was responsible for what. For example, the Department of Public Works would clean and repair catch basins and manholes.

PWSA board chair Paul Leger said the agreement is outdated — the city is no longer cleaning catch basins — and serves neither the authority’s ratepayers nor the city’s taxpayers.

“The present coop agreement has a full page of services that the city is to provide. They no longer provide any of them,” he said.

PWSA annually pays the city $7.1 million with no itemized accounting of what the money does, said Leger. Similarly, the city makes nearly $2 million in pension contributions for PWSA employees, a holdover from when they were city employees.

“I want to be able to say ‘This is what you are paying me for,’ when we pay the city or when the city pays us for something or does us a service,” said Leger.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which began oversight of PWSA in April of 2018, has also raised questions about the agreement. The city and PWSA have 90 days to negotiate new terms. City Council and PWSA’s board will have to approve the document.

In a press release issued after the meeting, PWSA noted that the decision has the support of Mayor Bill Peduto. In March of 2016, Peduto appointed a panel to help restructure PWSA. That panel illuminated the public conversation around PWSA's future.

Testing in the summer of 2016 showed high lead levels in some residents’ drinking water. The ensuing public scrutiny, and involvement of county and state officials, as well as PWSA’s own efforts at an overhaul, catalyzed a host of changes such as lead line replacements, reorganization of the agency and critical financial decisions. However, it didn't change the foundational documents that govern how the city interacts with authority.

The cooperation agreement is one of two such documents. The other is the capital lease agreement, which includes a provisions that allows PWSA to purchase the physical water and sewer infrastructure from the city in 2025.

Members of city council and the public worry that PWSA could be sold to a private company if the “2025 option” is permitted to stand. However, in a discussion after Monday’s meeting, PWSA board members said they agree with the mayor’s office, council and residents: the authority must remain a public asset owned by the public.

Also at Monday’s meeting, board members addressed the criminal charges filed by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro last week. They directed all questions to the authority’s attorneys, but acknowledged they were disappointed.

“As far as I can determine, all of those charges were remediated two years ago,” said Leger, referring to the civil fine levied by the Department of Environmental Protection in a 2017 consent order and agreement. “This looks exactly like what was filed with the DEP originally.”

90.5 WESA reporter Sarah Kovash contributed to this story. 

Margaret J. Krauss is WESA’s senior reporter. She covers development and transportation, and has produced award-winning podcasts on housing, work, and Pittsburgh’s lesser-known history. Before joining the newsroom full time, she covered the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities as a statewide reporter, and spent another life as an assistant editor for National Geographic Kids Magazine in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at