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PublicSource Leaves Out Important, Well-Documented Facts From Pittsburgh Article

PublicSource recently published an article on lead levels in Pittsburgh water that ignores important, well-documented facts.

Lead is an extremely important public health issue and we wholeheartedly agree that Pittsburgh residents should be alarmed and demanding of answers from their public officials. However, making false statements about the cause of the lead issues and falsely scapegoating private companies does not help solve the problem.

Here are four key points to keep in mind when reading the PublicSource piece:

 

1. VEOLIA NORTH AMERICA DID NOT MANAGE THE PITTSBURGH WATER SYSTEM

The PublicSource article states that, “Veolia managed daily operations at the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority [PWSA] from summer 2012 through the end of 2015.”

This is not true. Veolia did not manage or assume control over the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA). The contract between Veolia and PWSA explicitly defined a limited consulting arrangement, where PWSA retained decision-making authority over operations, maintenance, capital spending and staffing.[i] As the contract states:

 “[T]he Authority will at all times be ultimately responsible for operation and maintenance of its facilities, including: Ultimate responsibility for compliance with all applicable permits, authorizations, consent decrees, regulations, and all other laws at the facilities … Operations, maintenance, capital improvements related to facilities; Purchase of equipment, supplies, chemicals, utilities, and any other costs associated with the operation, maintenance, or capital improvements of its facilities; Ultimate responsibility for all PWSA employees and subcontractors and direct management of union employees; and Employment of all operations and maintenance (O&M) staff and other employees at the Authority’s facilities.”[ii]

Any claims that Veolia “managed” PWSA, its facilities or staff directly contradicts the terms explicitly laid out in the contract.

 

2. THE CHANGE IN CORROSION CONTROL METHOD WAS MADE BY PWSA STAFF

The PublicSource article states that, “We don’t know who ordered the switch in corrosion control [from caustic soda to soda ash].”

This is not true. As Veolia pointed out in its March 2017 letter to the Pittsburgh City Controller, email correspondence from PWSA water treatment staff clearly shows that PWSA employees made the decision to switch from soda ash to caustic soda for corrosion control, and Veolia was not involved in the decision.[iii] Furthermore, in making the change, PWSA also did not notify or seek approval from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) as required by state law.[iv]

According to a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection investigation, the change in corrosion control methods was made by PWSA staff “due to difficulty with an obsolete soda ash feeder” and the increasing cost of soda ash.[v]

 

3. THE CHANGE IN CORROSION CONTROL METHOD DID NOT CAUSE LEAD LEVELS TO SPIKE

The PublicSource article states that, “We know about the 2014 switch from soda ash to caustic soda that caused lead levels to spike.”

This is not true. The state Department of Environmental Protection reported in April 2016 that the corrosion control change did not affect lead levels in Pittsburgh water.[vi]

Notably, lead levels have been elevated and increasing in Pittsburgh water for well over a decade, well before Veolia began its consulting engagement with PWSA.[vii] Public statements by Pittsburgh officials reflect this fact. PWSA Board Chairman Alex Thomson told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in October 2016, “Veolia’s not responsible for the lead issue PWSA has. These lead issues are the result of the fact we have 75- to 100-year-old infrastructure.”[viii] Mayor Bill Peduto said in July 2016 that the test results showing elevated lead levels were “expected” as lead levels had been increasing steadily for several years.[ix]

 

4. PRIVATE COMPANIES HELP MUNICIPALITIES ADDRESS THEIR WATER INFRASTRUCTURE CHALLENGES

 When it comes to aging water infrastructure, unfortunately Pittsburgh is not alone. Our nation’s municipal water systems need a lot of work with some upgrade estimates reaching $600 billion over the next 20 years.[x] The state of Pennsylvania’s water and wastewater infrastructure need alone exceeds $32 billion over 20 years.[xi]

Local governments across the country face urgent and significant water infrastructure needs, and can’t cover the associated costs alone. This is especially true for municipalities that have other competing investment priorities or strained fiscal environments.

There is widespread recognition that private sector finance and expertise are crucial to meeting our infrastructure challenges. The U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities, the Brookings Institute, the Pacific Institute, and dozens of academics from across the country agree that the private sector provides proven solutions for municipalities facing water infrastructure investment, management and operation needs.


[i] Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, “Agreement for Interim Management Services,” July 2012.
[ii] Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, “Agreement for Interim Management Services,” July 2012.
[iii] Veolia Letter to Michael E. Lamb, City Controller, “Re: PWSA Performance Audit” 30 March 2017.
[iv] Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, “Actions Related to Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority,” 25 April 2016.
[v] Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, “Actions Related to Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority,” 25 April 2016.
[vi] Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “State cites Pittsburgh water authority for unapproved modifications” 25 April 2016; Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, “Actions Related to Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority,” 25 April 2016.
[vii] Allegheny Tribune, “Lead levels in PWSA drinking water samples exceed EPA threshold” July 12, 2016.
[viii] Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “Pittsburgh Water & Sewer files lawsuit against former management firm” 12 October 2016.
[ix] Allegheny Tribune, “Lead levels in PWSA drinking water samples exceed EPA threshold” July 12, 2016.
[x] Water Infrastructure and Resiliency Finance Center, EPA, Accessed 6/30/16.
[xi] Water Infrastructure and Resiliency Finance Center, EPA, Accessed 6/30/16.
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