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Allegheny

Gov. Wolf to sign bill placing Pittsburgh's water system under PUC oversight

Natasha Lindstrom
| Monday, Nov. 20, 2017, 6:54 p.m.
The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg.
Tribune-Review
The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg.
In this file photo from September, residents addressed a panel researching Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority operations urging the city to maintain PWSA as a public authority.
Bob Bauder | Tribune-Review
In this file photo from September, residents addressed a panel researching Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority operations urging the city to maintain PWSA as a public authority.
In this file photo from August, an employee of Frank J. Zottola Construction attempts to remove a section of pipe at a home in Pittsburgh's Perry North neighborhood. Zottola Construction was contracted by Pittsburgh's water authority to dig up service lines of homes to see whether they are made of lead. If the private side is not made of lead, and the PWSA side is, PWSA plans on replacing the lead line.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
In this file photo from August, an employee of Frank J. Zottola Construction attempts to remove a section of pipe at a home in Pittsburgh's Perry North neighborhood. Zottola Construction was contracted by Pittsburgh's water authority to dig up service lines of homes to see whether they are made of lead. If the private side is not made of lead, and the PWSA side is, PWSA plans on replacing the lead line.

A bill is headed to Gov. Wolf's desk that would place the troubled Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority under the oversight of the state's Public Utility Commission.

The state House approved Monday night the latest version of House Bill 1490 — which aims to improve PWSA's operations, safety measures and financial viability through the guidance and regulatory authority of the PUC.

Wolf intends to sign the bill, Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott told the Trib.

Peduto and PWSA leaders welcome the extra layer of oversight, Peduto spokesman Tim McNulty said.

“The water and sewer authority is obviously in need of massive help, which could include help from the PUC,” McNulty said.

Governed by a five-member commission, the Harrisburg-based body known as the PUC oversees more than 130 private, investor-owned water systems and Philadelphia Gas Works.

What PUC oversight means for Pittsburghers

House Bill 1490 will require PWSA to get approval from the commission for rate hikes; be responsive to PUC concerns over efficiency, financial and compliance problems; and provide customers another avenue for filing complaints.

The legislation gives PWSA officials six months to submit a plan detailing how the authority will bring its information technology, accounting, billing and other operating procedures into compliance with the Title 66 rules that apply to private systems.

The plan must include long-term infrastructure improvements.

The bipartisan pair of Allegheny County lawmakers who co-authored HB 1490 — House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Marshall, and Rep. Harry Readshaw, D-Carrick — said the move will ensure customers that their water is safe and their bills accurate.

Readshaw called it “a commonsense approach that will move the system in a positive direction.”

“The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority has been grossly mismanaged,” Turzai said in a statement minutes after the vote around 6:45 p.m. Monday. “The state had to step in.”

“The authority needs to be held to the same standards as the private sector,” Turzai added.

Details remain on unclear on other impacts as legal analysts review the oversight change — such as how it could impact PWSA's efforts to undergo a massive restructuring championed by Peduto. The mayor is awaiting a final report on overhaul options by consulting firm Infrastructure Management Group.

Far-reaching woes persist

During his initial report in August, IMG consultant Steve Steckler described PWSA as a “failed organization atop a dangerous and crumbling structure.”

For years, PWSA has been grappling with a spate of challenges on several fronts, from overbilled customers and rampant employee turnover to lead-laden pipes and chlorine treatment deficiencies.

The latter has spurred flush and boil orders affecting tens of thousands of people.

Costly replacements to aging infrastructure continue to mount while the authority's debt balloons — 50 cents of every ratepayer's dollar now goes toward paying off debt .

On Friday, the PWSA board approved an agreement with the state Department of Environmental Protection after DEP fined PWSA $2.4 million for violating various water regulations between 2014 and 2017 — including exceeding a federal threshold for lead levels in water, switching chemicals used to limit lead levels in water and failing to replace a required number of lead service lines.

PWSA officials have estimated that 20 percent of lines providing water to 80,000 customers are made of lead.

The authority has inspected 6,000 lines so far, with plans to do 15,000 more next year.

The agreement requires the authority to replace at least 1,341 lead lines by June 30 and continue with line replacement until lead levels reach federally accepted standards.

Peduto slams receivership idea

In a separate legislative attempt, state Rep. Dom Costa, D-Stanton Heights, has said he plans to introduce a bill that would take a more heavy-handed approach to PWSA oversight that goes beyond the PUC: creating a state receivership.

Peduto made it clear Monday that he's vehemently opposed to PWSA ceding control to a state-appointed receiver.

“The idea of Harrisburg controlling Pittsburgh's water is something that I won't accept,” Peduto said.

Late last week, Peduto reached out to Costa and asked him hold off on introducing his bill at least until the IMG report is finalized, the mayor said.

Costa did not return a call for comment Monday.

Peduto reiterated that he has no intention of privatizing PWSA. He fears that Costa's proposal could make it so “Harrisburg could simply sell the PWSA to the highest bidder.”

“That's not what we're looking for,” Peduto said. “We're looking for a long-term solution to provide drinking water for the next 50 years.

“Anybody who is trying to work through Harrisburg to sidetrack that, I'd warn them right now that Pittsburgh will fight.”

Staff writer Bob Bauder contributed to this report. Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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