PWSA approves $44 million in pipe replacements to meet consent decree, looks back on hectic year

PWSA approves $44 million in pipe replacements to meet consent decree, looks back on hectic year

Author: Stephen Caruso/Friday, December 15, 2017/Categories: Pittsburgh

After a year of responding to boil advisories, bursting pipes and high lead levels, with infrastructure spending, raised rates, and state oversight, Tassi Bisers, of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, wants the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority to leave 2017 proud of their work.

“I want you to start tooting your own horn about your own courage,” Bisers said to the chuckling PWSA board at their final meeting of the year Friday morning.

The meeting capped a busy year for the authority as it addressed numerous systemic issues, most branching from a lack of past capital investment. The authority also created programs to stop water shutoffs for low income customers and a payment assistance program for those struggling to pay their water bill.

“We should look back and say we got some stuff done,” PWSA Interim Executive Director Robert Weimar said.

During the meeting, the board also approved over $44 million in spending to replace 2,770 lead service lines, or the pipes that connect individual homes to water mains, to comply with a consent decree from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

The decree, agreed to in November, fined the PWSA $2.7 million for failing to replace lead lines fast enough after the authority voluntarily delayed its replacement program in June due to the health risks of partial line replacements.

Before a bill passed in October, PWSA claimed it was forbidden by state law to use ratepayers’ money on private property, leading to half replaced pipes into people’s homes that could increase lead levels.

A program to thoroughly replace lead lines besides the consent decree’s quota is waiting on DEP approval and is expected early next year. The November agreement lets PWSA use $1.8 million of the DEP fine to replace low income customers’ lines.

One other concern moving forward, according to water activist Aly Shaw, is the suggested restructuring of PWSA by a city panel. A few weeks ago, a consulting firm, IMG, suggested the water authority be turned into a public trust with a board of directors. Shaw said she worries that the management under the trust would become insular and not be as accessible as that of the municipal authority.

Shaw also was concerned that the plan, which has only be used in one other American city, Indianapolis, was untested, and would rob the authority of momentum now that it has begun addressing its service and infrastructure problems.

“We’re not interested in PWSA being guinea pigs when our drinking water is at stake,” she said.