Residents asked questions about the effects of lead poisoning, the cost of lead line replacement and the responsibilities of local landlords at a panel discussion about water issues Tuesday night.
The standing room-only event, dubbed “Not Another Flint,” drew more than 100 people to the Kingsley Association in Larimer. It was hosted by the Our Water Campaign, a joint effort of several local environmental and social justice organizations whose goal is to maintain public control of water.
But the topics at Tuesday’s panel discussion were far-ranging, and included who should have to pay to replace lead service lines on private property.
Nayyirah Shariff, an organizer with the group Flint Rising said that government in Pittsburgh, like in Flint, should bear that burden.
“It’s not up to us as residents to figure out how to pay for it,” Shariff said. “It’s up to us to demand it and to hold to account the people who are elected and choose to go into this work to figure that out.”
City Councilwoman Deb Gross was also on the panel. She agreed the cost shouldn’t rest solely on taxpayers, but doesn’t believe state law prohibits the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority from spending money to replace the private side of residents’ lead service lines.
“I’ve also been revisiting the Municipal Authorities Act, and it doesn’t scream out to me that there’s any prohibition of us going on private property, so someone’s going to have to explain that part to me,” Gross said.
Panelist Michelle Naccarti-Chapki, of Women for a Healthy Environment, called the division between the public and private responsibility an “invisible line” and said that systemic attitude “had to change.”
Advocates also made the case for maintaining public control of the PWSA. Panel moderator Rev. Vincent Kolb asked the crowd several times “Whose water?” to elicit the response “Our water!”
“Our sacred religious traditions of every kind affirm that we are not the owners of the Earth, we are merely caretakers and stewards,” Kolb said. “Given that none of us own the Earth, I submit to you that water can never be a commodity. It is a right of all human beings and all of the creation.”
Physician Christopher Conti used the metaphor of a lion hunting for prey to describe private water companies like Veolia.
“Because just like the lion knows that the gazelle needs water, these companies know that humans need water and they prey on that,” Conti said.
PWSA is currently in arbitration with Veolia, alleging that the company switched corrosion control chemicals in the water two years before elevated lead levels were detected in some homes. Veolia, which had a contract with PWSA from 2012-14, has denied those claims.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has said a public-private partnership is a possible solution to PWSA’s operational problems and mounting debt.
The organizations behind the Our Water campaign include Pittsburgh United, Clean Water Action, Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, Sierra Club, Nine Mile Run Watershed, New Voices for Reproductive Justice, Thomas Merton Center and One Pennsylvania.
For more coverage on Pittsburgh's lead problem, follow our Hidden Poison series.