“There are souls beneath that water.” —Dante Alighieri, “Inferno”
Drinking water is something many Americans are fortunate to be able to take for granted. Something pure and necessary for life.
So when Pittsburghers found out, in 2016, that their water might be poisoned with lead, it’s no surprise that it set off a firestorm that lasted years and became one of the biggest challenges of Mayor Bill Peduto’s time in office.
It happened so fast and had so many bureaucratic twists and turns that it was easy to miss what had actually happened. In the course of reporting this series, I found many of the oft-repeated explanations were incomplete. And many of the most important moments received little attention.
There is a simple way of telling the story: The city got what it paid for. Lead wasn’t the only problem or, by some accounts, even the biggest problem the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority [PWSA] faced. After years of less-than-sufficient rate increases, the old pipes and pumps that were barely holding together were failing in increasingly dramatic ways.
Now, Pittsburgh is on pace to be one of the few cities that has removed all of its public and private-side lead pipes by 2026. But projects like these collectively will cost billions. And it’s going to hit Pittsburghers’ pocketbooks hard. The average water and sewage bill is already over $100 per month and some estimates suggest it could increase to between $240 and $334 per month in the next two decades.
The stakes have never been higher as increased rains from climate change threaten to overwhelm the sewage system.
The story of how PWSA failed and how it managed to revive itself isn’t just a matter for the history books. It’s a case study in how companies and governments alike can avoid the obvious threats on the horizon.
The problems had roots that went back decades and intersected with the city’s failing steel economy. The story features leaders criticized for putting political ambitions over the city’s water and at other times included outright unethical and illegal deeds.
There was the former city councilor hired as the safety director who knew little about necessary protocols for a water plant. There were $10 million giveaways to developers and risky $100 million bond deals that tanked. There were water quality administrators who refused to follow environmental regulations. And that’s to say nothing of the billion-dollar privatization takeover that failed in plain sight. Or the dramatic showdown between Peduto and the board he nominated.
The problems at PWSA compounded: Political interference across several administrations not only meant that it was saddled with former city employees, but it was also burdened with pet projects and struggled to raise rates. Without sufficient funds, the authority couldn’t properly fix its infrastructure and struggled to hire top leadership. And that meant that the people who had to do the work were not always managed well. Some of those employees did not follow all the legal requirements, including when they made changes to how they reduced lead in the water.
I first became interested in retelling this story by watching Jim Turner, a PWSA board member who, in his retirement, took his role seriously. He asked questions frequently and bluntly. Why are the diversity numbers down? Where are the biggest points of failure? Why is the project so far over budget?
I wondered: Could there be some connection between how seriously Turner took his role and PWSA’s turnaround? PWSA had relatively rapidly transformed itself from the city’s biggest failure to one of competence. Lead levels are at their lowest in decades. Bills that were frequently incorrect are now generally accurate. PWSA is now a leader in addressing the city’s intensifying flooding problem.
It’s been unclear what role the board played in the crises faced by PWSA and how the authority has bounced back. Had they failed miserably at their oversight duties and escaped responsibility? Or were they the unsung heroes who pulled PWSA back from the brink out of the public eye?
So I asked Jim to talk. Our first meeting was in early June — almost exactly five years after the city’s water fell out of compliance for lead contamination. He said something shocking: PWSA was only three weeks away from running out of cash when he joined the board in 2017. It was the kind of frank admission that I didn’t remember hearing when PWSA’s crisis was front-page news. The more people I talked to, the more documents I read, the more it seemed like the crisis was actually much more shocking and complicated than most people realized at the time.
The scope of the story expanded as I learned about events that had never been fully reported before and about how various actors were influencing the board: city leaders, PWSA staff, activists, regulators and local and national media.
I conducted more than 60 interviews and analyzed a number of reports by contractors and auditors, read board meeting minutes, court documents, hundreds of articles and, in a few cases, the correspondence between key actors to verify information that wasn’t provided on the record. I made attempts to speak with about two dozen more people who either didn’t respond or declined to talk.
What follows isn’t meant to be a complete history of PWSA and its crisis, given how many hundreds of people were involved and how many thousands were impacted. Pennsylvania has one of the highest rates of children with elevated lead levels and children in poverty tend to suffer disproportionately, for example. This story is about the people in power whose job it was to keep Pittsburghers safe.
Explore the series further:
Series page with all stories: A water crisis swept through Pittsburgh five years ago: This is the fullest account of what happened.
This story was fact-checked by Matt Maielli.
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