Agreement controls water utility’s next steps to protect drinking water and ensure affordability
A coalition of local organizations advocating for safe, affordable water secured a major legal settlement that controls how Pittsburgh’s largest water utility will spend nearly $50M to address high levels of lead in its drinking water, and limits the financial impact of water rate increases on economically vulnerable customers.
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) recently approved an agreement requiring the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) to safely remove lead water lines, improve residents’ access to tap water filters, and increase transparency on its lead remediation efforts. The settlement also promotes affordable water rates, capping the rate increase at $21M (down from the $26M PWSA had requested) and providing increased rate assistance to economically vulnerable households. Pittsburgh United, a coalition of faith, labor and environmental groups, represented by attorneys from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Pennsylvania Utility Law Project (PULP), intervened in the PUC case to advocate for safe, affordable water.
“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. It’s what Pittsburgh and every community in America deserves. These hard-fought changes would not have been possible without the leadership of Pittsburgh United’s Our Water Campaign and the residents who stood alongside them,” said Dimple Chaudhary, a senior attorney with NRDC. Chaudhary was lead counsel in the lawsuit that resulted in the removal of lead water pipes in Flint, Michigan.
“Safe water is a right, not a luxury. We believe every family in Pittsburgh deserves to drink safe water from their taps without high water bills breaking the bank. Recent lead level testing confirms that Pittsburgh has a chronic lead problem; families are still at significant risk and more immediate remedies are needed. This settlement puts Pittsburgh on a path to safe, affordable water for everyone,” said Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy, Executive Director of Pittsburgh United.
“The amount in your paycheck shouldn’t determine whether your family can drink safe water. While big challenges remain, this settlement takes a critical step towards protecting economically vulnerable residents in Pittsburgh and places community voices front and center in crafting innovative affordability solutions,” said Elizabeth Marx, Supervising Attorney at the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project.
Pittsburgh has had lead contamination issues since at least 2016 and, according to an NRDC analysis of recent EPA data, it is the second largest water system in the nation to have exceeded the EPA’s action level for lead. There is no safe level of lead in drinking water, and the burdens of lead exposure are heaviest on low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, who are more likely to live in older homes with aging infrastructure. Recent testing shows that lead levels in communities served by PWSA still exceed the federal action level, indicating that PWSA must take more aggressive steps to address chronically high lead in drinking water.
PWSA estimates that it has as many as 10,000 public-side lead service lines, and it has yet to estimate its total number of private-side lead service lines. The settlement approved today addresses lead pipe replacements in 2019; during this period PWSA will spend $50M to address high lead levels, including by replacing at least 3,400 public-side lead service lines and 2,800 private-side lead service lines.
Key settlement terms include:
- A commitment by PWSA to replace thousands of full lead services lines – the portions running under both public and private property – at no cost to residents, in 2019;
- A requirement that PWSA use public health factors, including blood lead levels in children, to prioritize where lead service lines are replaced in 2019;
- A requirement that PWSA provide free water filters and replacement cartridges to all low-income customers who have lead service lines or a service line of unknown material;
- The creation of a Community Lead Response Advisory Committee to advise PWSA’s lead remediation efforts;
- Additional limitations on when PWSA conducts partial lead service line replacements, which can result in harmful spikes in lead levels;
- A limitation on rate increases of $21M, down from the $26M requested by PWSA;
- Enhanced protections for medically vulnerable consumers, victims of domestic violence, and renters from service termination;
- An increase in the discount that low-income customers receive on their bill (50% to 75% of the base charge);
- The creation of a Community Water Affordability Committee charged with advising PWSA on water affordability programs, education and outreach activities; and
- A commitment that PWSA will suspend its contract with a third-party debt collector, which created a debt trap for PWSA customers who fell behind on water bills.
About Natural Resources Defense Council
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. For more information, visit www.nrdc.org.