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Federal Infrastructure Bill Could Expedite PWSA Lead Pipe Replacement

Megan Harris
90.5 WESA

On today’s program: Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority CEO Will Pickering says federal funding from the American Rescue Plan could speed up their process of replacing lead services lines; and how the Battle of Homestead and Homestead Strike of 1892 shaped labor history in the U.S.

Federal infrastructure funds could speed up lead services lines removal in Pittsburgh
(0:00 - 10:34)

President Joe Biden's American Jobs Plan includes $45 billion to replace the country's lead pipes, and, if passed, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority could use it’s share of this money to expedite local replacements.

Will Pickering, the CEO of PWSA, says the authority would welcome the funding.

"We've already spent $100 million on replacing these lead service lines," he says. "It would be excellent if Congress could give us the flexibility to pay ourselves for that work we have already undergone."

Pickering says he's not sure how much PWSA would be eligible for but that it would help replace the city's remaining service lines. One difficulty, however, is that the city does know exactly how many lead lines exist in the city and need to be replaced.

“Our latest estimates show that we're about halfway there,” says Pickering. “To date we have replaced about 8,500 lead lines on the public side, that’s the portion of the service line that PWSA owns. Along with that, we’ve replaced approximately 5,500 private lines.”

PWSA has two programs to address lead pipes: the Line Replacement Reimbursement Program and the Water Main Replacement Project. The Line Replacement Reimbursement Program reimburses customers who replace the privately-owned portions of their service lines, and the Water Main Replacement Project replaces publicly owned lead service lines in tandem with aging water mains.

The state mandates PWSA remove all of the city's lead pipes by the end of 2026. Pickering says they are on track to meet that goal.

However, Pickering says the $45 billion allocated in the plan may not be enough to replace every lead pipe in the country.

"It sounds like a staggering figure, though there is a lot of lead across the United States in older cities," he says.

Pittsburgh witnesses 129th anniversary of the Battle of Homestead
(11:04 - 22:30)

This week marks the 129th anniversary of the Homestead Strike and Battle of Homestead in 1892, when union workers at the Homestead Steel Plant, seeking higher wages, went on a strike against the Carnegie Steel Corporation, which soon erupted into violence.

Charles McCollester, a labor historian and a founder of the Battle of Homestead Foundation says these workers had more favorable conditions than laborers in other parts of the country.

“It was not a depressed area,” he says. “It was not a dirty mill. It was a brand new, state-of-the-art, best mill in the world. They had a union contract from 1889. The union was involved in every decision on the shop floor.”

Workers at the mill earned wages based on the tonnage produced, then the money was divided by the union according to skill and seniority. The workers wanted to maintain this system, which meant some workers were earning up to $12 a day, unheard of wages at the time.

McCollester says the mill’s CEO Henry Clay Frick sought to disconnect wages and production. This incited plant employees to fight back.

The Battle of Homestead happened when Frick tried to sneak in private security agents to help break up the strike. It’s unclear who fired the first shot, but several people died, and the National Guard was called in to break up the strikers.

After a violent battle, which left ten people dead and required the National Guard to disperse, the strike ended with the men returning to work under Frick’s terms.

“After the battle, everything changed radically,” he says. “It shifts the power so dramatically into the hands of these wealthy owners that the standards set at Homestead for worker control really become the gold standard, from their point of view, in terms of the labor relations. And they become imitated virtually everywhere.”

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Kevin Gavin is the host of WESA's news interview program "The Confluence." He is a native Pittsburgher and served as news director for 90.5 WDUQ for 34 years. Since the sale of the radio station by Duquesne University to Pittsburgh EPM, Inc. (now Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.), he served as Executive Producer of Special News Projects prior to being named as host of "The Confluence" five years ago. kgavin@wesa.fm
Marylee is the editor/producer of The Confluence, the daily public affairs show on WESA. She got her start in journalism at The Daily Reveille and KLSU while attending Louisiana State University. She took her passion for audio journalism to UC Berkeley's graduate program and worked in public radio at WPR in Madison, WI, and WOSU in Columbus, Ohio.
Laura Tsutsui is a producer for The Confluence, WESA's morning news show. Previously, she reported on the San Joaquin Valley with the NPR affiliate station in her hometown of Fresno, California. She can be reached at ltsutsui@wesa.fm.
Rebecca Reese is a production assistant for The Confluence.
Eoin is a production assistant for The Confluence and a senior at NC State University studying political science. He got his start in broadcasting at WKNC, NC State's college radio station. When he's not working, he enjoys hiking, surfing, and listening to music.
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