Is your water safe? 11 Investigates Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority power problems

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority issued a precautionary boil water advisory for thousands of customers after a power outage at a pump station.

Channel 11′s Rick Earle had a lot of questions about what happened, and why it took so long to get the water flowing after that outage.

Earle sat down the PWSA’S executive director, and he spoke with customers impacted with no water at all or low water pressure.

Earle discovered that PWSA has two separate electrical feeds as well as a backup generator to the Bruecken pump station located along the Allegheny River near Washington Boulevard in Highland Park.

But there were issues with all three power sources and Earle discovered it’s a problem PWSA and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection have known about for years.

PWSA called in the perfect storm.

Earle spoke with a resident of Park Place in Pittsburgh’s East End near Frick Park who used the water that morning.

Kipp Dawson: We got up at the usual time that we do, which is around 7, and made cup of coffee out of the water.

Earle: You used the water?

Dawson: Yes, we did.

Three hours after Dawson and her family used the water, PWSA issued that precautionary boil water advisory for her neighborhood, and other communities primarily in the East End after that power outage shut down the pump station.

“We’re older but we’re very healthy people and each of us mentioned to the other that morning that we had unusual stomach issues,” said Dawson.

“So, nothing indicating there was a contaminant or anything other than the fact that we lost pressure to about 6,000 homes across our system,” said Will Pickering, Executive Director of PWSA.

The power outage affecting Duquesne Light customers happened around 2 a.m., and both electrical feeds that supply the Bruecken Pump Station went down, but PWSA has a backup generator in place.

It took several hours to get the backup generator up and running.

Earle: If the power goes out at two, the generator doesn’t’ kick on till four or five, why does it take several hours for a generator to kick on?

Pickering: So, the generator worked. Really, it’s the relationship between the backup power and that aging pump system that we have slated for replacement. We did run into some issues with the aging pump station equipment so that the backup power was available.

Pickering said the aging pump station requires time, manpower and extreme care to hook up that backup generator.

He said maintenance crews need to be on site to make sure there’s not a fire or any other issues.

Pickering said maintenance workers finally got that backup generator running and the pump station pumping water again about three hours after the power outage.

Earle took his findings to Myron Arnowitt, the state director of Clean Water Action, an environmental watchdog group.

Earle: It took three hours to get online. Unacceptable?

Arnowitt: That’s never what you want to see in a system. That’s part of what happens when, you know, you haven’t maintained things for a long time. You’ve got old set ups that were done a long time ago, you know that were maybe jury rigged.

Earle discovered that both PWSA and DEP knew about potential problems with the Bruecken Pump Station dating back to at least 2019.

An uninterrupted systems service plan, obtained by Earle, indicated that, “PWSA’S systems were at risk of losing power and in that instance would not be able to continuously provide pressure.”

In an effort to fix the problem, PWSA entered into a consent agreement with DEP to make major infrastructure upgrades, including replacing both the Bruecken Pump Station and the aging Aspinwall pump station located just across the river, to guarantee a continuous supply of fresh water, even during a power outage.

Earle: With the new system you’re confident that if you lose power it will go seamlessly to the backup generator.

Pickering: That’s correct.

It’s all part of a $470 million system-wide upgrade, but the Bruecken station won’t be finished until approximately 2026, and that’s if there are no hold ups.

Earle: That seems like a long time?

Arnowitt: That is a long time.

Earle: It seems like a long-time frame there?

Dawson: Yes, absolutely. I think the priorities as to how money is spent in our state and in our country is upside down,

Under the consent order, DEP allowed PWSA to prioritize projects based on need and financing.

And money has been a big hurdle.

Recent rate hikes have brought in additional revenue and PWSA has gotten outside help as well.

“We have funding from the federal government, and state government to help us finance this huge lift. We’re trying to undertake this to make sure that we have resiliency and redundancy in the drinking water system,” said Pickering.

Just six years ago, a consultant’s report called PWSA’S aging and underfunded system the worst of its size in the country.

Today, after years of abuse and neglect that led to federal charges of violating the Clean Water Act involving discharges and state criminal charges over lead line replacements, Pickering believes PWSA is finally righting the wrongs of the past.

“Part of the problem was we didn’t touch the system for 50 or so years. This work is expensive, but it’s been deferred for decades and we’re going to be the group that sets things right for now and for future generations,” said Pickering.

Earle: Are you optimistic about the future of PWSAs?

Arnowitt: Yes, I think it’s on a much better path than it was. We’re glad to see they’re on the right path. It’s going to take time to actually get all there way there.

And just to put it all in perspective, a decade ago in 2013, PWSA spent on $13 million on capital improvement projects.

During each of the past three years, ten times that amount or approximately $130 million every year.

Pickering said that massive investment will help ensure safe, reliable drinking water for generations to come.

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