Powelson: Misinformation campaign will prolong Pittsburgh’s water woes

On the heels of Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro filing 161 criminal charges against the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA), NAWC President and CEO Robert Powelson published an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that addressed Pittsburgh’s long-time infrastructure crisis. Powelson details how “delayed infrastructure investment and utility mismanagement” and “choosing low water rates over proactive infrastructure replacement” have contributed to the current dire situation that is threatening the health of the 300,000 residents PWSA serves.

Additionally, Powelson responds to an earlier op-ed that incorrectly blamed a water company for the city’s failure to maintain and invest in its infrastructure. He cites a recent analysis of EPA data that found that private water utilities in Pennsylvania are 37.4 percent less likely to violate the Safe Drinking Water Act compared to government-run utilities.

Read the full piece below:

Using unequivocal language including “ineptness,” “negligence” and a “lack of training and expertise,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro filed 161 criminal charges this month against the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA). The filings laid out how the drinking water provider that serves over 300,000 Pittsburghers was criminally liable under the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act for failing to notify residents or test water for lead when replacing service lines. Shapiro summarized: “It was the culmination of a multitude of failures throughout the entire authority that led to these criminal charges.”

Pittsburgh is suffering the unfortunate and serious effects of long-term delayed infrastructure investment and utility mismanagement. Like many public water systems across the country, for decades PWSA underinvested in its system, choosing low water rates over proactive infrastructure replacement, putting public health at risk.

Yet, in the face of the water authority’s well-documented failures over many years that have now culminated in 161 criminal charges being filed against it, a few voices outrageously still defend PWSA and advocate for continued government operation of the water system.

The op-ed “Real culprit in Pittsburgh’s lead crisis” (Feb. 6, TribLIVE) ignores facts and blatantly peddles misinformation in a desperate effort to distract from PWSA’s stunning failures. It’s nothing more than a shameless attempt to divert blame and downplay how dire the situation is at PWSA. This defense of the failing status quo is especially shocking given the serious health risks associated with PWSA’s failures.

The author claims a water company that once provided a narrow scope of consulting services to PWSA is to blame for the lead challenges in Pittsburgh even though the chair of the PWSA board rejected that idea out of hand more than two years ago. In an October 2016 article, Alex Thomson, chairman of PWSA’s board of directors, said, “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.”

The contract between Veolia and PWSA explicitly defined a limited consulting arrangement, where PWSA retained all decision-making authority over operations, maintenance, capital spending and staffing. Yet why should the author let the facts get in the way of her ideologically motivated attack on a water company?

We’ve seen this far too many times in communities across the country. Groups opposed to water company involvement are willing to desperately dig their heels in to advocate for government operation even when it puts residents in harm’s way. They choose to ignore the facts that show water companies’ superior record of delivering high-quality, safe water. In fact, a recent analysis of EPA data shows that private water utilities in Pennsylvania are 37.4 percent less likely to violate the Safe Drinking Water Act compared to government-run utilities.

This uninformed spin by activists, including false claims that even PWSA rejected long ago, only serves to divert attention and deflect blame, leaving Pittsburghers no closer to being able to count on safe water from their taps. Residents deserve better from their water authority. Pittsburgh’s water system needs investment and expertise – two things that the private sector excels at providing.

The shocking and shameful organizational failure of the PWSA has put the health of the 300,000 residents it serves at risk. If Pittsburgh is serious about fixing its longstanding water challenges, the first step is to accept that the status quo of government operation is not working, and there are 161 criminal charges to back up this fact. As the former chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, I want to personally applaud Shapiro for holding PWSA accountable for the generational failures that have hampered this system for decades.

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