Residents To PWSA Executives: ‘Why Should We Trust You?’

Jan 5, 2017

PWSA interim executive director Bernie Lindstrom (left) and interim director of engineering Bob Weimer (right) addressed a crowd of about 70 residents at a public meeting in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017.
Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

At more than three hours, Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority officials said the informational meeting they held Wednesday in Lawrenceville was one of the longest yet.

Dozens of residents remained at the Teamsters and Chauffeurs Union Hall on Butler Street well past the meeting's end at 9 p.m., peppering PWSA leadership with questions about lead service lines, anti-corrosion chemicals, inaccurate bills and other concerns.

This was the fifth public meeting the authority has held since October. More meetings are scheduled at various locations through Feb. 1.

PWSA announced in July that elevated levels of lead had been found in 17 of 100 homes tested. The Environmental Protection Agency action level is 15 parts per billion. Forty-five homes were shown to have non-detectable levels of lead; four had more than 50 ppb. As a result, the state Department of Environmental Protection is requiring PWSA to develop a plan to address the problem and eventually rid the system of lead service lines.

PWSA customer lead coordinator Danielle Ellis (center) answers questions from Lawrenceville residents Ashley Brandolph, 33 (left), and Phoebe Stern, 29 on Wed., January 4, 2017.
Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

For the first hour of Wednesday night’s meeting, interim director of engineering Bob Weimar and interim executive director Bernie Lindstrom presented technical information about Pittsburgh’s water system – its age, capacity, strengths and weaknesses – and options residents have for addressing elevated lead levels in their water.

But the bulk of the meeting consisted of questions from residents who were at times angry, scared and confused about the lead showing up in testing results of some customers’ tap water.

“Why should we trust you? I think a lot of people have this question and it’s not to be antagonistic or aggressive,” said Jennifer Kiley, 55, of Bloomfield. “I’m asking you honestly, forthrightly, and I think many of the people in the room agree with me. Please tell us why we should trust you.”

Knowledge of the Flint water crisis, where residents unknowingly drank lead-tainted water for at least a year, hung heavy over the meeting.

Weimar and Lindstrom tried to assuage concerns, but admitted that mistakes of the past contributed to the lead problems seen today.

“Your agency that I’ve been running for the last four months is doing the best they can with the, let’s be honest, benign neglect for many years prior,” said Lindstrom, who took over as executive director in September.

Approximately 70 people attended a PWSA informational meeting about lead in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017.
Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

In 2012, PWSA entered into a management contract with a company called Veolia. In 2014, Veolia changed the anti-corrosion chemical used in the water, without DEP approval. Anti-corrosion chemicals create a protective coating on the inside of pipes to help prevent lead from leaching into the water.

Sabrina Spiher Robinson, 34, of Lawrenceville asked Lindstrom and Weimar if that change could have contributed to the elevated lead levels discovered in 2015.

“After Veolia changed the anti-corrosive, now (a homeowner’s) line could very well be leaching lead,” she said. “That seems to be nothing to do with the homeowner’s responsibility and everything to do with theirs.”

PWSA is now in arbitration with Veolia seeking $12.5 million over that and other problems that arose during the life of the contract.

Spiher Robinson inquired as to whether money from the settlement could be used to help offset costs for homeowners who need to replace lead service lines. Weimar and Lindstrom said they could not discuss ongoing litigation, but City Councilwoman Deb Gross, who was present at the meeting, said she was supportive of the idea.

A water sample test kit from PWSA.
Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

Ashley Brandolph, 33, of Lawrenceville said she and her husband had replaced the 8-foot-long lead service line to their row house at their own expense.

“Our lead service line ran into our house and then underneath our basement, they poured concrete over it. It was incredible,” she said. "We also replaced all of our interior service lines. The excavation was the most expensive part, but the whole thing was about $20,000.”

Weimar said the cost of lead service line replacement varies greatly, but admitted that it would likely be a substantial financial burden for many homeowners.

In the meantime, PWSA is pursuing multiple strategies for reducing the presence of lead in water throughout the system as mandated by the DEP.

“One major portion of that was to re-do the corrosion tests that we did back in the late '80s and early '90s and determine whether or not the chemistry of the water has changed such that the chemical corrosion inhibitors that we put in are not being as effective as they were at one time,” said Weimar.

PWSA is also working on mapping every lead service line that it owns in the system. PWSA owns the portion of service lines that run from the water main to the curb, while homeowners own the portion from the curb to the home itself. Weimar said he expects to have records of all lead service lines digitized and online within a year.

He also said he expects that lead levels throughout the system will be back below the 15 ppb EPA action level in six to 12 months. In the meantime, he recommended concerned residents get their water tested, flush their pipes before drinking water and purchase National Safety Foundation approved filters.