Why Providing Clean Water In Pittsburgh Hinges On A Corporation

Mar 30, 2017

 

 


From a conference room at the North Shore offices of Peoples Gas, president and CEO Morgan O’Brien has a view of Pittsburgh’s rivers.

 

“We've got an abundant supply of water, most places in the country would kill to have that asset,” he said. “So making sure that that infrastructure gets fixed, it’s really an important ingredient to all the other things that are going on here.”

 

A few weeks ago, O’Brien called the city to offer the company’s support to help provide water filters to city residents. He’d heard about Councilwoman Deb Gross’ urging the city to provide water filters to families with young children, for whom any level of lead is unsafe.

 

“It hit a nerve with us,” he said.   

Peoples offered $500,000, which, when combined with $250,000 from the city, and $250,000 from PWSA, added up to a cool million for water filters.

The announcement of the $1 million dollar Safe Water Plan came just weeks after a flush-and-boil advisory that prevented thousands of PWSA customers from drinking or cooking with their tap water, and almost a year after PWSA first reported lead levels that exceeded federal action limits. PWSA estimates 25 percent of its lines are lead. Finding and replacing them will take years and millions of dollars.

 

In a press conference Peduto said the water filter plan was a “Band-Aid,” part of the larger effort to safeguard Pittsburghers from elevated lead levels. O’Brien said he felt responsible to help in the short-term as the government works on addressing water infrastructure.

 

“Growing up you always felt like there was somebody out there protecting the people that need protected, right? The more you see and the more you understand there's a lot of things that fall through the cracks.”

 

O’Brien said PWSA water lines and Peoples Gas lines share space in the street; the people affected by water quality issues are his customers. For them, and for the region’s economic future, clean water is fundamental.

 

“Everybody's read the story about Flint, Michigan. I always pictured, you know, if you were a community leader in Flint and you were trying to draw a business to come there and create jobs, if you were trying to help companies grow there, all those efforts probably came to a dead halt [due to the water crisis].”

 

Plenty of corporations have social responsibility initiatives. But having a corporation provide a basic service such as clean water feels a little different. It is unusual for private companies to tackle water quality issues, said John Quelch, a professor at Harvard Business School. But that’s likely because it’s only recently that water’s again become a public health issue.

 

“There’s always a wariness of the motives of private corporations, but the fact of the matter is, this country is basically built on the foundation of a private sector working in tandem with a public sector,” Quelch said.

 

Ultimately, Peoples Gas is offering a lump sum of money to help address an acute problem. As long as agreements are worked out in public, Quelch said the partnership makes a lot of sense.

 

New partnerships for old problems

 

On a recent afternoon, Peduto’s chief of staff Kevin Acklin walked into a conference room with a folder and notepad, his shirt sleeves rolled. He’d just finished a meeting about the Safe Water Plan.

 

“It’s a big project, it’s a significant logistical issue,” Acklin said. “Today was really about determining eligibility, which customers should be first in line to receive lead filters.”

 

The job of buying and distributing water pitchers to residents will be put to public bid. Within the next two to three weeks, the city expects to know who will be getting water pitchers first and how. Priority will go to low-income residents, people whose water tested over 15 parts per billion, and homes where PWSA will soon replace service lines.

 

But Acklin said the Safe Water Plan is just one piece of a coordinated effort to address lead in the city.

 

“This is not a silver bullet...It’s one of a number of initiatives that we’re considering to eliminate lead from the entire system. That’s the goal.”

 

When O’Brien called Acklin to offer $500,000 for water filters, Acklin said he experienced no hesitation about accepting that help.

 

PWSA’s board had been working on a filter distribution plan for months, but “the biggest issue was money,” he said. For the city to pull together a million dollars would have been difficult, requiring the administration to comb back through the budget, and pull from other capital projects around the city.

 

“We could have done it ourselves,” Acklin said, “but our ability to buy filters would not have reached all the people we thought could be at risk.” He added it’s likely they will need more money for later phases of the Safe Water Plan.

 

The point is to protect the city’s most vulnerable residents as quickly as possible, said Acklin; decades of disinvestment have compromised Pittsburgh’s water system, but they intend to fix it.

 

“That’s a promise.”

 

Hidden Poison is a series examining Pittsburgh’s lead problem, reported by public media partners 90.5 WESA News, Allegheny Front, PublicSource, and Keystone Crossroads. Read more at hiddenpoison.org.