Part 12 — A timeline of events that led the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority into and out of crisis

1984: Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority [PWSA] was created under the state’s Municipal Authorities Act to refurbish infrastructure across the system but the water department is still run by the city. 1995: The city transfers its water employees to PWSA and leases its water lines to the authority for $101 million over 30 years. PWSA issues a $200 million bond. The city signs a cooperation agreement with PWSA that includes 600 million gallons of free water for the city every year. March 1995: PWSA’s first executive director Glenn Cannon complains that a sewer lining contract was not fairly awarded because of a city councilor’s intervention.

Part 11 — A quick primer on the ups and downs of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority

Now that the crisis at the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority appears to be largely over, it’s easier to see some of the key lessons:

There doesn’t appear to be any particular form of oversight guaranteed to lead a water authority like PWSA to success. Both public and private management of PWSA has made some progress and led to some major failings. The profit incentives for Veolia Water North America encouraged them to take on short-term savings at the expense of long-term investments. But the electoral incentives of public officials to keep costs down led to a similar outcome. 

When the city made PWSA an independent agency in 1995, it hoped to spur sufficient investment. But it didn’t work.

Part 10 – The retirement of an old-school public servant will test the durability of PWSA’s turnaround

When Jim Turner leaves the board of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority at the end of 2021, it will be a test of just how far the authority has come. At some boards in Pittsburgh, there is very little discussion. Not with Turner around. He will often have asked three or four questions before another board member even has a chance to jump in. Turner asks questions sometimes even when he knows the answer, so that it will go into the public record.

Part 9 — PWSA’s turnaround begins: Bob Weimar starts to ‘get shit done’

When Bob Weimar took over as interim executive director in 2017, he was still renting a North Side apartment for $850 per month. It was basically just a bed to sleep in, as problems continually arose that kept him at work through the night. The largest projects taken on by the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority in the past had barely cost $20 million, and it had completed only a handful of them. Weimar needed to prepare the agency to take on work the likes of which it had never done before. He needed to hire top-level staff quickly to do it.

Part 8 — Privatization pitch: How close PWSA came to being privatized

As PWSA went into crisis in 2016, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development had a meeting to identify opportunities and threats to the Pittsburgh region. There, Morgan O’Brien, the president and chief executive of Peoples Natural Gas Company at the time, heard a presentation about Flint, Michigan, and the threat lead poisoning posed locally. 

“Oh my god,” he remembers thinking. “If that happens here, all the CMU and high-tech things and UPMC with life sciences, we’re sunk as a region.”

At the time, Peoples was beginning work on a 20-year revitalization of its underground gas pipes. When he visited workers who were tearing up the streets once, he saw another pipe directly below the gas lines and asked what it was. It’s the water line, they told him.

Part 7 – A coalition of activists helped begin the turnaround at PWSA

The additional attention from the lead crisis had set off a more general sense of crisis at the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. 

PWSA couldn’t keep its executive directors. Bob Weimar had just taken over as interim executive director, the fourth leader in just over a year. The billing problems weren’t getting resolved. And some of the long-standing issues the authority faced, including its need for improved infrastructure, were finally coming to the fore. 

In the same month that three board members resigned in 2017, Mayor Bill Peduto hired an outside consultant to analyze how the authority should be reformed and appointed a Blue Ribbon panel to choose the consultant and add to their recommendations. The panel was made up of water experts, nonprofit leaders, former board members, city employees and community advocates. 

These multipronged crises were both a threat and an opportunity for environmental activists in the city.

Part 6 – The key moment: How three PWSA board members ignited the authority’s turnaround

The tension between the mayor and the board of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority hit a breaking point in March 2017. For more than two decades, PWSA’s board members had balanced their responsibility to manage the authority with the desires of the mayor and city council who appointed them. The ambitions of the mayor typically won out and the water system deteriorated. At the beginning of 2017, PWSA still could not send out accurate bills and, in many cases, stopped sending out bills at all. In the past year, lead contamination in the city’s water had risen above the federal action level, and the public outcry had reached fever pitch."It had become the biggest problem in the city,” Mayor Bill Peduto said.

First person — Academia, activism and Pittsburgh’s water: My scholarship cannot be neutral.

When Pittsburgh’s lead-in-the-water crisis news broke in 2016, I was a Ph.D. student in sociology at Pitt. I knew my scholarship could not be separate from my activism. A few months earlier, sensing that lead contamination in the water could be more of a widespread problem nationally than was understood amid a focus on Flint, I decided to test my own Greenfield home’s lead-water levels. 

The results came back at 100 ppb lead level. That’s about seven times higher than the level that the Environmental Protection Agency says is safe and 100 times more than what scientists think is safe. Many people think an academic’s role is to stand back and study people, processes and institutions in a neutral way.

Part 5 – The lead crisis in retrospect: The main problem wasn’t PWSA’s corporate management

Despite what you may have heard, 2016 was not the first spike of lead levels in Pittsburgh's water. And it did not directly coincide with the conclusion of three years of management by Veolia Water either.  In fact, lead levels had been spiking in fits and starts for more than 15 years, according to data the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority reported to the feds. 

At PWSA’s lab, there hadn’t been a lot of worry about lead, said Jay Kuchta, a microbiologist there for 30 years before retiring in 2014. Kuchta’s home had lead pipes and his tests were coming back with little to no lead in them. The city’s lead levels were increasing but rarely above the lead threshold set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA].