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Lead levels in Pittsburgh water 'public health crisis,' controller says

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PITTSBURGH - Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner is demanding that Pittsburgh leadership take action to address elevated lead levels in city water, which she called a “public health crisis.”
 
Wagner held a news conference Tuesday, in which she compared the situation in Pittsburgh to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
 
“Lead is leaching through the lines of one in four homes that are serviced by the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority," Wagner said.
 
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said the city has taken steps to protect residents, such as establishing a plan to provide water filters and offering low-interest loans for homeowners to replace lead lines. 
Wagner said more needs to be done.
 
"Water filters are a good first step, but we need a full plan to remove the lead lines from our water system,"  Wagner said. "We can't let the message to our residents be ‘pay up or get poisoned.’"

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The cost of removing the lead lines is estimated at $25 million.
 
While Peduto believes removing the lead lines is important, he said the goal is to make sure the PWSA operates effectively to keep all residents safe.
 
"It is definitely in a crisis. There is no way under the present structure this organization can survive," he said.
 
Peduto is changing the way the PWSA operates, starting with the addition of several new board members. The agency is also dealing with $1 billion in debt.
 
"From the very beginning, it was debt-laden and from the very beginning it never had a plan to modernize. Keeping what we have is not the solution,” he said.
 
Following Wagner’s news conference, Peduto’s chief of staff released the following statement:
 
"The City is in the midst of an open, transparent and public process to evaluate the future of the PWSA, which includes looks at lead service line issues, and the authority's crippling $1 billion in debt.  
 
It appears the County Controller instead wants to preserve the status quo at the authority and push massive tax increases on City residents, all while taking cheap political shots at those actually working to address the authority's issues. 
 
As most lawyers know, Pittsburgh, unlike Philadelphia, is barred by the state Municipal Authorities Act from replacing residential lead service lines.  

Contrary to what the Controller stated, the PWSA is under orders by the state Department of Environmental Protection to replace 7% of its lead service lines each year. 
 
In the meantime the Mayor's Office has been making legitimate strides to protect residents of the city who – like those in more than 5,300 municipalities nationwide – have unacceptable levels of lead in their water system. 
 
At a meeting with water experts yesterday regarding Mayor Peduto's $1 million Safe Water Plan, the group agreed to prioritize issuing free water filters to residents in neighborhoods where the PWSA is replacing its lead service lines. 
 
Additionally, early this month the Urban Redevelopment Authority created a low-interest loan program to help low-income residents pay for their lead service line replacements. 
 
And this coming Friday morning, a blue-ribbon panel of water experts will do public interviews of proposed professional advisory teams to manage a possible restructuring of the PWSA. 
The Mayor does agree with the County Controller on one point. As he has repeatedly said, he does not favor privatizing the PWSA." 

RELATED: PWSA customers to receive filters to reduce lead levels in drinking water