Key takeaways from our interview with Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority Interim Executive Director Robert Weimar

Bob Weimar has been serving as the interim executive director of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority for almost a year. And he is forging ahead with plans to revamp the organization and tackle the city’s lead issue despite numerous water main breaks and other setbacks, he said in an interview with PublicSource on Wednesday.

One of Weimar’s priorities is to change the chemical that PWSA uses to control lead corrosion in its service lines, a move he hopes will drop lead levels down to single digits citywide and buy the organization the time it needs to locate, remove and replace the lead lines. He said Wednesday that he is awaiting approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection [DEP] to make the chemical change, and hopes to add it to PWSA’s systems by the spring.

Weimar is taking other changes — including those to PWSA’s governing structure — in stride. He said he’s focused on making institutional changes to improve the quality and efficiency of PWSA’s services, while also tackling the day-to-day tasks of mitigating concerns about rate increases, flush and boil advisories and keeping PWSA compliant with a court order it signed with the DEP late last year.

Here are five major takeaways from our conversation with Weimar:

1. PWSA is learning to handle emergencies better.

Weimar said PWSA staff had been operating with a “fixes that fail” mentality that’s caused the organization to operate day to day but not plan for the future.

“The fix-fail mentality was based on two underlying philosophies. Philosophy No. 1 was do as much as you can for as little cost as you can, and the second philosophy was that the system is very robust and, as a result, we can, in fact, find ways to repair it because much of the system is no longer necessary to meet the demands of the system.”

Because PWSA is only using two of the six water pumps it owns, employees have been using the four pumps that are non-operational as “a salvage yard,” Weimar said.
“So it's no different than somebody going to try and keep their car running. They run to the salvage yard and buy a carburetor or whatever else is needed... they've done that with the pumping systems for years.

“But when it becomes the predominant way in which you're managing your facilities, it leaves a lot to be desired and you put yourself at a higher risk of failure. Whereas before they were dealing with the risks as they arose, now we're trying to get ahead of it and put ourselves in a position where those risks will no longer be risks because we'll have the backup systems or we'll have the additional resources to to solve the problem immediately without any disruption to service.”

2. Weimar is pursuing both short term and comprehensive solutions to the city’s lead crisis, though he wishes he could fix things faster.

While PWSA is pursuing DEP approval for a chemical change in the near-term, it’s also looking for a comprehensive way to replace lead lines, Weimar said.

“We know that the lead problem is a severe one that we have taken very-very aggressively…[but] there is a certain amount of regulatory process that needs to be followed and, critically, the process in Pennsylvania and the efforts by DEP are probably well-intentioned...but it put us in a position where we might not be able to operate as quickly as we would like to.

“Because of the volume and the costs associated with this work, we felt it was inappropriate for us to try to do it on an emergency basis. It makes sense for us to reconsider how we go forward as we define exactly where these lead service lines are. We’ll be in a position to say, ‘OK, we can correct these lead service line problems and at the same time put a new water main in the street so that the water main which is now in a relatively precarious or fragile condition will be able to be brand new and the lead service lines will have been replaced all the way to the home.’ So that's the long-term strategy.”

3. Rates will increase but PWSA will have to get state approval before customers pay.

Weimar said he’s hoping the Pennsylvania Utility Commission [PUC], which now oversees PWSA, will approve a 56 percent rate increase over three years.

“Now that we're under the PUC, the PUC has the authority to determine what's a legitimate expense and what's not. So we are going to be held accountable if you will.

“The strategy I think is to get the PUC to review the rates and review the future expenditures that we've estimated and give us a sense as to whether we're headed in a reasonable way. And then that is going to be brought to the public so the public is going to have a chance as part of the PUC process to review and comment on rates before they are approved by the PUC. No longer will the board have the sole opportunity to just say we need to raise the rates by X amount of dollars. It will have to be done with the full accord and an agreement of the PUC. That establishes a very robust process for the public's involvement. There will be hearings as part of those processes. There will be hearings here in Pittsburgh as well as in Harrisburg.

“...I think people don't realize as yet how much actual influence they're going to have through the PUC, and the PUC has a very robust process to support the consumer and the consumer advocate has as much power as the authority might have in a rate case. So what you'll find is that, at least in that context and in the context of our responsiveness to problems that are being raised in the system, those are issues that the PUC takes quite seriously.”

4. Weimar hopes the changes to PWSA’s governing structure lead to a more technically-savvy board and expects residents to have more of a voice.

“The fact remains that the process of moving more towards a technically competent board that has the background and acumen to really direct the activities here at PWSA and to formally evaluate what we are doing or not doing is important.

“By having a board with more and more acumen around legal matters, technical matters, financial matters then and environmental matters for that matter, I think we're going to find that the board will become a more engaging process… At present, we have a great board but they'll be the first to admit to you that there are many aspects of running a business like this that they really don't have the wherewithal to evaluate on their own.

5. More ‘flush and boil’ advisories are possible in the future.

“...The attitude that we've taken and the one we'll be using at least for the time being is that whenever we have a situation where the water pressure in the home goes down to zero or homes actually have no water — and that's the preponderance in a certain area like we had when we had the Centre Avenue break — then we're going to call a boil water advisory for one simple reason: We don't know how much might have been drawn back from the household into the water system. A well run water system, one that's brand new, that wouldn't happen because you have backflow prevention valves. Unfortunately, the percentage of homes that do not have such valves in the city is quite high.

“And we don't have records of who has, who does not have it it's one of the things frankly we're going to be doing when we put in lead service lines, we're actually going to, as a part of the health code, we have to install backflow and other equipment in the basement as we put in these new lines...whenever we lose pressure to a point where we believe there could be an exposure to the public resulting from water being drawn back from homes that do not have backflow devices, that's when we're going to call the boil water advisory — or if there's a condition in which we had a significant loss of water and the pipelines themselves, the main pipelines, cannot be properly disinfected before we put them on service.”

J. Dale Shoemaker is PublicSource's government and data reporter. You can reach him at 412-515-0069 or by email at dale@publicsource.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @JDale_Shoemaker.