Pittsburgh Council Seeks Review After Boil-Water Advisory

Pittsburgh Council wants the state to investigate the local water authority's operations, including a former contract with a private corporation, in the wake of over-billing and water quality problems that included a boil-water advisory that affected 100,000 customers.

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said Friday he would do an audit but the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority must request it, not City Council. The attorney general's office doesn't comment on investigations.

The city leases its water and sewer system to the quasi-governmental authority. The authority's seven-member board is appointed by the mayor and approved by City Council.

The city issued the boil-water advisory Tuesday as a precautionary measure at the direction of state environmental regulators after tests showed water drawn from city reservoirs didn't have enough chlorine to meet state standards.

The advisory was lifted Thursday.

Mayor Bill Peduto said there was never any sign of harmful bacteria that can occur with the drop in chlorine levels. He said the advisory actually amounted to a "technical" precaution, because other tests showed the city's water was never unsafe. Among other things, the water never fell below federal levels for sufficient chlorine, which are less-stringent than Pennsylvania's standards, Peduto said.

The Democrat's administration has sparred previously with the authority and Veolia Water North America-Northeast, the Boston company that had a management contract with the authority from July 2012 through the end of 2015.

The authority in October filed a lawsuit seeking $12.5 million. The authority contends Veolia is responsible for over-billing problems and a change in chemicals that caused city water to approach a federal threshold for lead in 2013.

Veolia issued a statement late Friday saying it welcomed a review of its work for the authority. The company said it had nothing to do with any of the reported water-quality issues and that it was repeatedly credited by the authority board and city for improving the agency's efficiency.

"Unfortunately for Pittsburgh residents, the community has had difficulties with its water infrastructure for many years," the company said. "During our time in Pittsburgh, we brought highly effective management methods to the system and remain proud of our work there."

The state Department of Environmental Protection has been investigating and testing the city's water system because of the previous concerns about lead. Tests it conducted last weekend found the unrelated chlorination issues, city and authority officials said.

Authority Director Bernard Lindstrom said the utility is trying to determine whether faulty tests or a treatment plant problem caused the below-standard chlorine readings. The city took its Highland Park reservoirs off line and flushed out the system to satisfy DEP concerns and lift the boil-water advisory.

Peduto, who is up for re-election this year, announced Friday that he wants to hire an outside advisory team to restructure the authority, a move he said the agency supports. Authority officials didn't immediately comment on Peduto's announcement, or City Council's requests for the state audit and investigation.

"While we are not presently considering a full privatization, nor a third-party arrangement similar to the previous engagement with Veolia, we are seeking a full financial and operations partner," Peduto said. "With disintegrating water infrastructure, massive debt problems and repeated failures in customer service and billing issues, deep changes to the PWSA are obviously necessary."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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