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Pittsburgh water authority charged criminally over lead

By MICHAEL RUBINKAMFebruary 1, 2019

Pittsburgh’s water and sewer authority was charged criminally Friday over allegations that it mishandled a lead pipe replacement program and put more than 150 households at elevated risk of lead poisoning.

The Pennsylvania attorney general’s office filed 161 misdemeanor counts against the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, each charging a violation of the state’s safe drinking water law. The authority had previously admitted civil liability in the case and was fined $2.4 million by state environmental regulators.

Pittsburgh has for years struggled with high levels of lead in its drinking water, and the authority is under a state mandate to replace at least 7 percent of its lead service lines each year. In 2016 and 2017, prosecutors said, the authority replaced water lines without giving residents advance notice they were doing so, breaking state law. Because lead levels can temporarily spike in drinking water during pipe replacement, the law requires water systems to warn customers ahead of time and provide information on how they can minimize exposure to lead.

The Pittsburgh authority also failed to test the residents’ water for lead after replacing the lines, another violation of state law, according to the charges.

“The Water and Sewer Authority knew it was required to notify residents of its plans to replace service lines, and it knew it was required to sample the lines for lead content, yet it failed to do so,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said at a news conference in Pittsburgh on Friday. “That makes PWSA criminally liable.”

Lead can cause lifelong brain damage and other injuries, especially in children.

Executive Director Robert A. Weimar says the authority is “deeply disappointed” by Shapiro’s decision to press criminal charges, saying the problems were addressed by the authority’s civil settlement with the state Department of Environmental Protection. He said the authority intends to defend itself.

“Additional fines related to these previous missteps would only divert ratepayer dollars that would otherwise be used for critical water quality improvement projects and programs,” he said in a statement.

The water authority serves about 300,000 customers in Pittsburgh and the suburbs. The city leases its water and sewer system to the authority, whose board is appointed by the mayor and approved by City Council.

In 2017, Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner accused the water authority and local health officials of failing to adequately protect residents from lead, likening the situation in Pittsburgh to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where 15 defendants faced criminal charges over lead in the drinking water supply.

A state audit later that year found that years of mismanagement and lack of leadership at the Pittsburgh authority had led to financial problems and deteriorating infrastructure.

“My audit, followed by DEP fines and now criminal charges, indicate a trend that is indefensible,” Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said Friday. “Threatening the water quality of the people of Pittsburgh — and anywhere else — is unacceptable in every way, shape and form.”

Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania director of Clean Water Action, said the water authority has more recently taken strides to improve its lead pipe replacement program. It has been replacing privately owned water pipes — the portion that runs between the curb and the house — at no charge, avoiding partial lead line replacements that heighten the risk of exposure. The authority replaced more than 2,000 lead service lines in 2018.

“They are running a better program today than in 2016,” he said Friday. “It’s not PWSA policy any more to do the things they were doing at that time.”

No individual employee of the Pittsburgh water authority was charged because state investigators didn’t find evidence that anyone intended to hurt customers, Shapiro said.

If convicted, the authority faces a maximum fine of $12,500 for each count. Shapiro said any fine money would be returned to the city to be spent on programs that protect public health.

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