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Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy: Real culprit in Pittsburgh’s lead crisis |
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Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy: Real culprit in Pittsburgh’s lead crisis

Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy
| Wednesday, February 6, 2019 7:00 p.m
Contractors in 2017 dig up water lines to homes in Perry North to determine if they are made of lead.

On Friday, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced that his office has filed 161 charges against the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) over elevated lead levels.

For years, Pittsburgh community members and environmental coalitions like the Our Water Campaign — a local coalition of environmental, labor and community organizations that represents tens of thousands of ratepayers — have worked to address the problem of lead in our drinking water. The campaign and its supporters and allies have always supported mandatory disclosure of lead lines; many families may not know if they have a lead service line or not, and without that information, they cannot adequately protect themselves and their families. We know that lead poisoning can result in severe, long-term health problems, especially for children under 6.

So we were initially heartened to hear that the attorney general’s office investigated Pittsburgh’s lead crisis and treated the issue with the gravity it deserves. We wholeheartedly support holding accountable the actors and entities who allowed this crisis to develop.

However, there’s a side of this story not being addressed by either the legal action taken or the media buzz surrounding this case, and that is deeply concerning.

The charges that the AG’s office filed focus on PWSA, the public authority in charge of cleaning up Pittsburgh’s lead crisis. What they do not focus on is the party responsible for leaving Pittsburgh with a lead crisis in the first place. From July 2012 to December 2015, Paris-based private water corporation Veolia held a contract with our public water authority, putting PWSA under Veolia’s operational management. Under its management, the chemical used to prevent lead contamination was switched to a cheaper alternative without required Department of Environmental Protection approval. Then, increased levels of lead began leaching into the water. To make matters worse, PWSA laboratory staff — those responsible for testing water quality — was cut in half during Veolia’s contract.

We now know what happened when Pittsburgh put a public asset in private, corporate hands: Veolia put its profits over residents’ needs and safety. While residents had to deal with the lead crisis that followed Veolia’s management, Veolia walked away with $11 million and left thousands of people with unsafe water. The contract incentivized Veolia to make decisions based on the dollars “saved” rather than doing what was best for Pittsburgh. Not surprisingly, low-income communities and communities of color were hit the hardest by elevated lead levels.

The Our Water Campaign, city residents and local officials have worked for several years to expose and challenge Veolia’s abusive practices, repeatedly demanding that Veolia be held accountable for its role in our lead crisis. The attorney general’s office should do the same. We should absolutely hold those responsible accountable, but we should do so by placing blame where it belongs.

The lead crisis that Veolia left PWSA to clean up is an unfortunate reminder that we must stand up and say no to multinational corporations seeking to enrich their shareholders on the backs of Pittsburghers, especially our most vulnerable residents.

PWSA — now under new management and leadership — has made enormous progress in recent months working with the community to make water safer and more affordable. While they are certainly not perfect, and it is important that they continue to be held accountable to the public they serve, the cause of the crisis they’ve been left to manage deserves the same — if not more — investigative scrutiny. The people of Pittsburgh are owed a full, public, statewide investigation into the role Veolia’s mismanagement of PWSA played in Pittsburgh’s lead crisis. We hope that this is a key part of any further action taken by Shapiro.

Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy is executive director of Pittsburgh United.

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