The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority had a rough 2017. Remember all those boil-water advisories? Partial lead line replacement controversy? News about fee hikes? The year ended with a state consent order that included a multimillion-dollar fine. The intensified scrutiny that comes with a consent order, though, may be just what the water authority needs to have a more orderly and productive 2018.
The consent order, signed by the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority [PWSA] in mid-November, outlines a schedule for the authority to replace lead lines in the city. Within the order, the state Department of Environmental Protection [DEP] also levied a $2.4 million fine for numerous violations; the authority paid $600,000 of the bill in December.
Though a hefty fine is rarely positive news, PWSA needed the consent order to confidently move forward in replacing the water lines that have put Pittsburghers at risk to lead, a neurotoxin.
“Any existing lead lines, our goal is to replace them,” said PWSA interim Executive Director Bob Weimar. “It is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when.”
Before that point, replacing lead lines was a tricky political issue for PWSA. At first, it replaced lead lines that it owned but not the ones that connected to homes and businesses because, it argued, those lines were privately owned and state law prohibited PWSA replacing them. Those partial replacements, though, can make lead contamination worse and PWSA stopped that practice in mid-2017. Pittsburgh City Council passed legislation over the summer that would allow PWSA to use the city’s public safety powers to replace private lead lines. But that law was reliant on the consent order and could do little to spur lead line replacement before it was inked. In the fall, state Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, added language to a budget bill that gave PWSA state authority to replace lead lines, alleviating that barrier for good.
Now, with the DEP outlining that PWSA has to replace 1,341 lines by June 2018, the authority can start the work at a more aggressive pace.
But the 27-page consent order PWSA signed includes more facets than lead line replacement. And there are other factors at play: On Dec. 28, the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Panel released an 18-page report recommending that PWSA remain a public entity but make some significant changes to its management system and provide fewer subsidies to the city and other entities, among other suggestions. PWSA would have to incorporate the consent order requirements into the panel’s recommendations, if adopted.
But while those panel recommendations are being discussed, what’s certain is that the consent order and agreement sheds light on how PWSA will operate, in some regards, for the next few years. Here’s a breakdown of what this means for Pittsburgh residents.
Q: What is a consent order and agreement?
The consent order signed by PWSA and the DEP explains what PWSA violated or failed to do and lays out the specific steps that PWSA will take as a result. The consent order also explains that PWSA will have to pay another fine to the DEP and face additional scrutiny if it does not comply with the consent order.
From the consent order, we learn how the PWSA violated the Safe Drinking Water Act standards. The Safe Drinking Water Act was enacted in 1974 to protect drinking water in the United States. The Safe Drinking Water Act gives the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency the authority to set drinking water standards for the country. The consent order explains that the PWSA and DEP have agreed how the PWSA will remedy the violations and comply going forward.
PWSA Consent Order and Agreement (Text)
The consent order also calls for PWSA to pay a $2.4 million penalty. Weimar confirmed that ratepayers will be bearing the cost of the fines. PWSA in November approved a series of rate increases that will increase bills for PWSA customers by roughly 50 percent by 2020.
However, $1.8 million of the total civil penalty could be used to provide grants or low-interest loans to property owners to cover costs of lead line replacements, if the PWSA submits a successful project proposal. Weimar told PublicSource the authority will be submitting a proposal to the DEP to create such a program. As specified in the consent order, the proposal for what the DEP calls a “Community Environmental Project” must be submitted by Jan. 16, 2018.
Kevin Acklin, outgoing chief of staff to Mayor Bill Peduto, added by email: “We are thankful that DEP permitted the bulk of the financial amount to be directed by PWSA as an investment of millions of dollars toward accelerating removal of lead supply lines in the city.”
Q: What did PWSA do wrong?
1. “Failure to Treat As Permitted”
- The Safe Drinking Water Act mandates that before any changes can be made to a water system, a permit must be obtained from the DEP. In 2014, PWSA made changes to the way it manages corrosion control without getting a permit to make changes. In 2016, DEP issued an administrative order telling the PWSA to investigate lead levels in the system, to notify customers, to conduct a study and submit a plan based on the study’s findings for “optimization of corrosion control treatment for the system.”
- PWSA was supposed to have completed the study regarding corrosion control treatment by June 2017. PWSA failed to complete this study.
2. “Lead Action Level Exceedances 2016”
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] and Pennsylvania code establishes the action level for lead at 15 ppb. If more than 10 percent of the samples collected are greater than 15 ppb, the action level has been exceeded. The law says PWSA must monitor lead levels. If the levels are over the safe limits for two consecutive six-month periods, PWSA must start replacing lead lines. The PWSA reported 22 ppb of lead in the water, according to the tests conducted in the first six months of 2016. It dropped to 18 ppb in the second half of 2016 and 15 ppb for the first six months of 2017. PWSA will release data on lead levels for the second half of 2017 in early 2018.
- State code requires water systems that exceed the action level to begin replacing lead lines six months after the water exceeds the action level. Lead line replacement started on time, but PWSA (in part because it didn’t know where all of the lead lines are and in part because it refused to do partial line replacements) couldn’t meet the DEP’s deadline.
3. “Failure to Conduct System Material Evaluation”
- Because the lead levels were over the safe limit, PWSA was supposed to submit an inventory of where the lead service lines are and replace at least 7 percent of them. PWSA did not have a sufficient inventory of the lead lines. PWSA submitted an estimate instead of a complete inventory.
4. “Failure to Replace Lead Service Lines”
- PWSA should have replaced 7 percent of the lead service lines by June 30, 2017. Based on the estimate of lead service lines submitted by PWSA, it should have replaced 1,341 lines. PWSA replaced 415 publicly owned lead lines between July 1, 2016, and June 30, 2017.
- Of the 415 replacements, 174 were partial lead line replacements — where the public side was replaced but the private lead line remained, according to PWSA spokesman Will Pickering. Of those 174 partial replacements, Pickering said 96 were replaced due to an emergency break of the public service line. Of the other 241 replacements, most were cases where the public side of the service line was lead and the private side was not lead; in roughly 20 of them, residents coordinated with the authority to replace their private-side lead service lines, Pickering said.
5. “Failure to Meet Notice and Sampling Requirements”
- Pennsylvania code requires PWSA to notify property owners when conducting a partial lead line replacement and offer to replace the privately owned portion at the owner’s cost. If PWSA only completes a partial lead line replacement, the state requires it to provide written notice to residents and do follow-up testing.
- PWSA did not provide notice to at least 60 residences where PWSA performed a partial line replacement. It also failed to collect samples for follow-up testing for at least 149 residences where a partial lead line replacement occurred.
Q: What does the consent order mean for Pittsburgh’s lead crisis?
The consent order outlines several concrete plans PWSA must follow to tackle the lead problems the city has. The DEP gave a deadline of Dec. 31, 2020, for the water authority to identify where all of the residential lead lines in the city are. PWSA has two more years to complete the list of every lead line in the city. To achieve this, PWSA will continue to analyze paper drilling records and perform curb box inspections to verify which parts of the system are lead. According to PWSA’s estimate, 25 percent of the city’s 81,000 water lines are made of lead. From now until 2022, PWSA must inspect all of its 71,000 residential and 10,000 commercial curb boxes. PWSA is creating a database of its infrastructure and building a map of where lead lines are.
Weimar said that by the time PWSA chooses a contractor to do the 1,341 lead line replacements and sets a schedule for replacements, the authority will have to replace about 200 lines per month to meet the deadline of June 2018. After that deadline passes, Weimar said he hopes the authority can keep up a similar pace for replacing lead lines.
Pittsburgh Lead Action Now, an activist group that has been fighting for lead-free water, said it was encouraged by the consent order but was still concerned that the aggressive pace would force PWSA to start doing partial line replacements again.
“We’re hoping that PWSA can coordinate the replacement of both the public and private sides so that residents aren’t endangered by partial replacements,” the group’s Steve Marziale wrote in an email.
One tricky aspect of lead line replacement, Weimar said, is figuring out how much of a private line PWSA will commit to replacing. The average length of a private line is 40 feet, but that can vary widely, especially for homes with long driveways or large front yards.
In the meantime, Weimar said PWSA is still working to get approval from the DEP to use orthophosphates or another chemical as a way to reduce lead corrosion in the existing water lines and lower the lead content in the water. “My goal is to get it in March 1,” Weimar said, adding that the change in corrosion control treatment should lower lead levels enough to keep PWSA from violating the EPA lead action level again.
Q: What happens next?
In addition to the civil penalty and continued testing and notifications, both parties have agreed to the following timeline:
|11/17/2017||Consent order signed by PWSA and DEP|
|12/17/2017||PWSA paid $600,000 of the $2.4 million civil penalty to the DEP|
|1/16/2018||PWSA must submit a ‘Community Environmental Project’ proposal for how it would distribute $1.8 million of the penalty money through grants or loans to residents for lead line replacements|
|2/15/2018||The DEP will decide by this date if it will approve the PWSA’s proposal for a Community Environmental Project|
|3/17/2018||If DEP doesn’t approve the proposed Community Environmental Project, PWSA must pay total civil penalty amount by this date|
|3/31/2018||PWSA to submit final report on the corrosion control study|
|3/31/2018||Recommended deadline from the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Panel for the reorganization of the PWSA.|
|6/30/2018||Deadline for PWSA to have replaced 1,341 lead services lines.|
|11/17/2020||Any unused funds of the $1.8 million must go back to the DEP|
|12/31/2020||PWSA must have a list of all of the lead lines attached to residential structures|
|1/16/2021||Remaining funds, if any, due to DEP|
|12/21/2022||PWSA will have a complete inventory, residential and commercial, of the city’s service lines.|
J. Dale Shoemaker is PublicSource’s government and data reporter. You can reach him at 412-515-0069 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @JDale_Shoemaker.
Lindsay Patross is a PublicSource intern. You can reach her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @saylindsay.
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However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.