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.

The threat was that PWSA, one of the environmental community’s biggest champions, was now under attack. PWSA had taken significant blame when four residents died during a flash flood in 2011. So PWSA, including under Veolia Water North America’s leadership, embraced the activists’ push for “greener” solutions to the city’s wastewater problems because it would also help with issues like flooding. The same year the lead crisis emerged, PWSA released a “Green First” plan with sweeping measures to address sewage overflows. PWSA had become a leader in building environmentally friendly solutions to the city’s stormwater problems.

By contrast, the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority [ALCOSAN], which is responsible for treating the wastewater for 83 municipalities, was pushing for the vast majority of the region’s stormwater money to be spent on underground tunnels that could store excess rain and sewage during storms. ALCOSAN’s plans would do little to address the region’s flooding problems. Activists struggled to achieve the kind of headway they made with PWSA at ALCOSAN, where the board was politically split between the city and the county.

The Panther Hollow Lake in Schenley Park is part of one of the biggest green infrastructure projects in Pittsburgh that is being implemented by the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. (Photo by Teake Zuidema/PublicSource)

But the crisis also provided an opportunity for the activists to be heard because suddenly there was so much attention on PWSA. 

In its earliest days in 2017, The Our Water Campaign — a coalition of environmentalists, community organizations, ordinary citizens and labor groups — organized events comparing Pittsburgh’s crisis to Flint’s lead crisis. They showed up at board meetings, canvassed neighborhoods and organized public protests.

Peduto grew frustrated at the activists because he believed they were promoting a negative image of PWSA that was giving fuel to state lawmakers, like Mike Turzai, who began to say publicly that the authority should be privatized.

When the privatization threat emerged, the activists changed tack. They tried to funnel public anger away from the public agency toward Veolia, a private company. By 2019, when the state attorney general announced 161 charges against PWSA, The Our Water Campaign called for another investigation of Veolia.

“​​We felt strongly about getting involved in turning around the issues plaguing the authority and advocating for the board, because we wanted to maintain that democratic control,” said Jennifer Kennedy, the executive director of Pittsburgh United, which provided funding for the only full-time organizer for the Our Water Campaign.

They found a good deal of success. PWSA began to adopt changes that the activists believed would make it a more fair agency. 

The Our Water Campaign agreed that PWSA needed rate increases and investments to be saved as a public utility, but they argued that its low-income customers needed a special fund to help them pay their bills. That’s what PWSA eventually did

The campaign argued that PWSA should pay to replace both private and public lead lines because replacing only one side could make the lead problem worse in the short run. That’s what PWSA did. 

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a doctor from Flint, Michigan, spoke to a crowd in 2017 about lead poisoning in Pittsburgh children. (Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

The campaign argued that, with all the problems PWSA was having with sending out accurate bills, there should be a pause on water shut-offs. PWSA’s board compromised on a moratorium on winter shut-offs for low-income customers.

The campaign was successful, in part, because it could turn out large groups of people to its events, said Brenda Smith, one of the campaign’s leaders. Action United would turn out people interested in addressing poverty, she said. Pittsburgh United helped turn out union members from Service Employees International Union. And the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network would turn out some of their parishioners. 

Will Pickering, PWSA’s CEO, said the campaign’s impact on the direction of PWSA was huge. “They were pushing for the right things generally,” he said. “They made it very clear they were willing to go to city hall or board meetings … and make things difficult.”

PWSA’s board members generally supported their proposals. But they took some convincing, according to Aly Shaw, who led the Our Water Campaign for Pittsburgh United. Some board members, like Deborah Lestitian and council member Deborah Gross, worked directly with the campaign and helped convince other board members, like Jim Turner and Paul Leger, who were worried about the potential impact on PWSA’s already precarious finances, Shaw said.

After three PWSA board members quit in protest in 2017, PWSA’s board meetings became more interesting and staff were responsive in a way they had never been before, Shaw said. There was a lot of political pressure coming from above and from the community to get things done. “At one point, they were doing two board meetings a month and making pretty massive changes at every meeting,” she said.

Shaw and several other activists remember Leger, the board chair at the time, coming to one of their public meetings. Leger went around from group to group, really listening to people’s concerns.

But some board members were turned off by the campaign’s efforts. Caren Glotfelty, who served on the board from 2014 to 2017, said the Clean Rivers Campaign (a precursor to the Our Water Campaign) seemed to be driven more by ideology than by an understanding of the science. Their ideas about green infrastructure, she believed, didn’t pan out but the board was forced to “waste” time and money on it anyway because they were supported by the mayor. 

(Water activists dispute Glotfelty’s characterization, pointing to studies such as a 2020 RAND study of a Pittsburgh watershed which showed that, when all of the benefits of green stormwater approaches are calculated, the benefit to the public is sometimes higher than just building pipes underground.)

Lead paint and dust from old buildings is the biggest threat to children’s health from lead poisoning, according to the Allegheny County Health Department. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

Local public health officials were frustrated with how the lead contamination was being portrayed by activists. The percentage of kids testing with high lead levels in their blood in Allegheny County, according to the county’s data, continued to be below national averages and had been falling rapidly. 

Karen Hacker, the director at the county health department at the time, tried to refocus the anger in the community toward the biggest threat to children: lead from paint and soil. She instituted a universal testing program for all children in the county, to identify more of the children who truly did have high lead levels.

“What frustrates me is when facts don’t seem to matter,” Hacker told PublicSouce in 2019. “I went out and said that, ‘Hey, we have a problem with water but the fact is that our bigger problem is with paint.’ It was not met with a, ‘We agree with the doctor.’ It was met with, ‘No, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.’ And that’s frustrating.”

Even as the activists started chalking up victories by the end of 2017, the biggest threat to keeping the city’s public drinking water public was, unbeknownst to most people, just about to receive a full-on frontal assault.

Read the next story in this series: “Part 8 — Privatization pitch: How close PWSA came to being privatized

Explore more stories in this series: “A water crisis swept through Pittsburgh five years ago: This is the fullest account of what happened.”

Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at oliver@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.

This story was factchecked by Matt Maielli.

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Oliver reports on K-12 education for PublicSource. Before becoming a journalist, Oliver taught English and drama in the Arkansas Delta for seven years. He has previously written education features in New...