PWSA faces 161 criminal charges for lead water line violations
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro on Friday charged the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority with potentially endangering the health of 161 households by failing to notify residents when the agency replaced lead water lines.
Shapiro said investigators found no evidence that anyone working for PWSA intended to harm Pittsburgh residents, thus his office filed 161 criminal counts — one for every home impacted by PWSA’s actions — directly against the authority. PWSA faces fines totaling $201,250 to $2 million for violating Pennsylvania’s Safe Drinking Water Act, the attorney general said.
PWSA officials said a fine would ultimately come from sewer and water fees paid by ratepayers.
“It makes no sense,” said Kenneth Johnson, 61, of Homewood, whose home was among the 161 whose lines were replaced without the required notice. “Our bills are already going up … and our bills are going to continue to go up. It’s not going to be fit to live in this town. You aren’t going to be able to afford the water.”
Shapiro said his office is obligated to hold PWSA accountable for violating state law. He said fine money would stay in Pittsburgh and it would be up to the state Department of Environmental Protection to determine how the money is used.
“We believe PWSA has the means to pay whatever fine is ultimately levied without jacking up the rates for people here in Pittsburgh,” Shapiro said. “Whatever dollars come in as a result of this will stay in … the affected neighborhoods.”
A DEP spokeswoman declined comment.
PWSA officials described the situation as double jeopardy, noting that the authority previously paid the DEP a civil penalty of $2.4 million for the same issues.
“We said that we had violated those regulations because we wanted to get as many lines fixed as we could,” said Paul Leger, who chairs PWSA’s board of directors. “I understand that he is acknowledging that we broke the law. To fine us over something that we already paid just comes out of the ratepayers’ pocket or takes away from the work that we have to do.”
The state’s top law enforcement official was joined by members of his criminal section to make the announcement at the Estelle Campbell Boys and Girls Club in Lawrenceville, which Shapiro described as “ground zero” for PWSA’s lead infractions.
“These charges, 161 counts total, are in connection with how the water and sewer authority failed in its duty to notify Pittsburgh residents that it was replacing lead service lines, putting them at risk to consume lead in their drinking water,” the attorney general said. “The water and sewer authority also failed in its duty to sample water from the replaced lines for analysis of lead content within 72 hours of installation, again putting Pittsburghers at risk.”
State law requires PWSA to provide residents at least 45 days notice before replacing a line.
PWSA also violated the law by failing to collect samples from the replaced lines within 72 hours of the new pipes being installed, Shapiro said.
Replacing aging lead pipes “can cause temporary, and potentially significant, increases in lead levels in residents’ drinking water,” he said.
PWSA Executive Director Robert Weimar said officials are “deeply disappointed” that Shapiro chose to pursue criminal charges and that the authority would mount a defense in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas.
“We self-reported the issues to DEP, agreed to a civil penalty of $2.4 million and have since established one of the most comprehensive lead service line replacement programs in the nation,” Weimar said in a statement. “We have cooperated with DEP and addressed the issues covered by the civil settlement. 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.”
PWSA has struggled since 2016 to reduce lead levels in water that exceeded a federal threshold of 15 parts per billion. The most recent test results released last week indicated lead levels of 20 parts per billion from July to December.
Lead is unsafe at any level, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The neurotoxin can slow brain development and is most dangerous to children younger than 6 and pregnant women.
The debt-ridden PWSA has been working toward replacing all lead waterlines in its service area since 2016. The agency set the goal of replacing 3,400 lead lines in 2019 using $49.1 million in grants and loans.
Madeline Weiss, spokeswoman for Clean Water Action in Pittsburgh, an environmental and public health advocacy group, said she was surprised by the charges.
“It’s always good to see people advocating for residents in a case like this, but we are pretty happy with the policies they (PWSA) have right now,” Weiss said. “Mostly we’re glad that PWSA has stopped doing the partial (lead) line replacements. Obviously we don’t want this to go on the backs of ratepayers.”
Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Bob at 412-765-2312, email@example.com or via Twitter @bobbauder.Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.
Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Bob at 412-765-2312, email@example.com or via Twitter .