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PWSA emails shed light on chemical change that may have caused increased lead

Target 11 has obtained internal emails from the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority that shed new light on the decision to change a chemical in the agency's water system that led to higher levels of lead in drinking water.

Target 11's Rick Earle went through hundreds of emails from the past several years that offered an inside look at who knew what and when.

Some people have argued that rising lead levels in Pittsburgh's water were the result of a change in corrosion control chemicals used by the PWSA.


In 2014, the PWSA started using caustic soda instead of soda ash. Caustic soda is less expensive. But three years later, that decision is the subject of an intense court battle between the city and Veolia, the company hired to run the authority.

"You had a professional company come in here under the last administration, the contract itself incentivized them to make decisions like this one which was to save money which may have put the system more at risk," said Kevin Acklin, the chief of staff for Pittsburgh's mayor.

The city blames Veolia, while Veolia said they had nothing to do with the change. Target 11 used the Right to Know Law to get internal emails from the PWSA that could bolster Veolia's claims. The emails indicate PWSA employees may have made the change.

In an email sent in April 2014, a maintenance supervisor hinted at the change, saying "...we are not planning on using much, if any, soda ash until sometime in May or early June due to in-house projects that we are endeavoring upon."

Three months later in July, another email from another maintenance supervisor: "Here is the first draft of the letter we spoke about using caustic versus soda ash. After we spoke about letting everyone know about this experiment, I thought that we should first present this letter to Tom P. before we go to Veolia."

The mayor's chief of staff dismissed the emails.

"Who knows if these employees were trying to curry favor with their managers by saying, 'Hey look Veolia, we are going to save you some money, keep us around by the way when a lot of their friends and colleagues were being fired'. So again, this gives you a little bit of the theme by which the culture created by Veolia was to maximize profits at the expense of the system, and ultimately threatened public safety of the residents of the city of Pittsburgh," Acklin said.

Veolia has denied any involvement, saying "the switch from soda ash to caustic soda was not part of any Veolia initiative. Any suggestion that Veolia directed, was aware of, or benefited from the chemical switch is simply false".

The city of Pittsburgh contends that Veolia knew about the switch. Acklin said what's even more troubling is that Veolia failed to notify the Department of Environmental Protection about the change. The DEP cited PWSA for making the substantial modification to the drinking water treatment system without prior approval.

"Look, I don't know these folks, I wasn't there at the time in terms of when that decision was made," Acklin said. "What I will say is that we had a clear breach of contract by Veolia in not doing their job to look out for the residents of the city, to not do their job to notify DEP of when decisions were made as to what was going in our water."

Veolia released the following statement:

"Veolia was not involved in any decision to change corrosion control chemicals, nor were those changes part of Veolia's and PWSA's contract metrics. In fact, PWSA staff alone executed the change and didn't formally notify Veolia's interim management team until nearly nine months later.

It is inaccurate to suggest Veolia made certain decisions when the PWSA purposely retained authority over such major decisions. There were a range of contract options when PWSA hired Veolia and rather than asking Veolia to operate the utility, the Authority instead chose a more limited consulting arrangement where, according to the contract, PWSA  maintained "...ultimate responsibility for compliance with all applicable permits, authorizations, consent decrees, regulations and all other applicable laws at the facilities, including without limitation environmental...requirements."