“The people of Pittsburgh have been drinking lead-contaminated water for far too long. This settlement requires aggressive, affordable solutions to protect public health and hold officials accountable to the people they serve,” Dimple Chaudhary, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.
Chaudhary, who led a lawsuit over lead water pipes in Flint, Michigan , represented a coalition of Pittsburgh community, labor, religious and environmental groups in the water authority’s rate case before the Public Utility Commission.
The utility agreed to accelerate its existing lead line replacement program, promising to swap out 3,800 of its own water lines and 2,800 privately owned lines, at no charge to residents, this year and next. The money will come from grants and a loan from the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority, or Pennvest, which funds sewer, storm water and drinking water projects throughout the state.
Other provisions require the water agency to focus its replacement program on neighborhoods at greatest risk of lead exposure, increase outreach to residents who refuse to get their water lines replaced, make more residents eligible for free filters and replacement cartridges, and restrict the use of partial lead line replacements, a practice that can lead to temporary spikes of lead in the water.
The utility estimates it owns about 10,000 miles of lead pipe out of a total of 71,000 miles. That doesn’t include privately owned lead service lines that take water from the curb to the house.
Robert Weimar, the authority’s executive director, called it “an agreeable settlement that considers our most vulnerable customers, while also providing the investments needed to be the water, sewer, and storm water utility Pittsburgh expects and deserves.”
Customers’ bills are going up substantially. Regulators approved a 14 percent rate increase, meaning a typical residential customer will pay nearly $9 more per month. But low-income customers will get a bigger discount than they do now.
The rate hike will yield $21 million in new revenue for a water utility that has been trying to address decades of mismanagement, heavy debt, billing problems, chronic understaffing, elevated lead levels and a dilapidated system that loses 50 percent of the treated water it produces to broken pipes.
State lawmakers placed the authority — which an independent consultant once called a “failed organization atop a dangerous and crumbling structure” — under the control of the Public Utility Commission last year.