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Lead line replacements could cost PWSA customers By Adam Smeltz / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Lead line replacements could cost PWSA customers

July 19, 2017 8:52 PM

By Adam Smeltz / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

 

Scores of Pittsburgh water customers saddled with lead service lines might not get a free ride, after all.

Amended legislation this week from Mayor Bill Peduto’s office could leave some households to pay at least a portion of line replacement costs, although just how much remains an open question. Lead may appear in as many as 20,000 to 25,000 service connections under the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, which is facing state orders to reduce contamination from the metal.

The worst-case projection would account for around a quarter of service connections across the PWSA system, where workers are identifying and tallying the lead pipes.

“We’re just trying to be good stewards of public money,” said Kevin Acklin, Mr. Peduto’s chief of staff, who underwent questioning Wednesday by City Council. The administration is exploring a variety of state and city resources to limit any financial burden on affected PWSA customers, including lower-income families who could escape any out-of-pocket expense, Mr. Acklin said.

He said “some mix of grants and loans” could help customers replace the privately held segments of lead service lines, which estimates suggest can cost several thousand dollars. The administration should return to council by fall with specific funding proposals, Mr. Acklin said, suggesting the city could gauge customer income levels, the scope of work and other metrics to determine how it would distribute financial aid.

One option: a $5,000 to $10,000 cap on public assistance for any private-line replacement. Mr. Acklin said higher service rates could help cover the expenses.

“We’re protecting our residents. They shouldn’t have to pay the bulk of this,” said Councilman Corey O’Connor. He hesitated over changes in the legislation, an earlier version of which would have put the burden for private-line replacements more squarely on the city.

Replacing lead lines “is the right thing to do,” Mr. O’Connor said, but “how we get to that money solution is always the big problem. If we’re saying it’s a public safety hazard, we should take your public health into consideration.”

Elevated lead test results last year triggered a federal remediation rule, requiring that PWSA replace at least 7 percent of its lead service lines each year. A service line connects a customer’s plumbing to a water main beneath the street.

The replacement mandate applies only to the public portion of those lines, which is closest to the water main. PWSA pays for that. But the private, customer-owned section of line, which finishes the connection into the building, often includes lead, too. PWSA estimates that most properties with lead on the public side also have it on the private side.

While the authority replaced 415 public lead service lines from July 1, 2016, through June 30, city officials have said the state Municipal Authorities Act prevents PWSA from performing the same work on the customer-owned side. PWSA said it knows of about 25 customers who replaced their lead line segments at the same time the authority did public-side work.

Pending state legislation would let municipal authorities like PWSA spend government funds on private water lines when a threat menaces public health or safety. Provisions would let the authorities use money from the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority, or PennVEST, to help residents repair or replace deteriorating water and sewer lines.

The Peduto administration has called the state legislation the best way to ease the private-side lead line replacements. But with that measure lingering in the General Assembly, Mr. Acklin said, the administration wanted to push a local option that would speed the underground work.

He said that’s why Mr. Peduto’s office brought up the revised legislation this week before City Council, angling to use the city as a legal vehicle to line up contractors and handle private-side replacements when PWSA swaps out the adjacent public lead lines. Under the local proposal, a PWSA customer would have to give consent for any private-side replacement.

City Council advanced the legislation for a final vote next week. Private-side work under the concept could begin next year, once the city sets a 2018 budget, officials said. Lead exposure is tied to developmental and other health problems.

“We will have to do something that’s equitable, fair and just, obviously,” said Councilman Ricky Burgess. “There are a number of ways to do this. Whatever we do, it ought to be graduated or capped in terms of how much the city gives.”

Ideally, Rev. Burgess said, he would like the private line replacements to be free for all affected PWSA customers. But he said a lot hinges on support from the state, which the city is lobbying for millions of dollars. Removing all lead service lines in the PWSA service area could run some $363 million, according to the authority.

Mr. Acklin said private line replacements could be transferred from the city to PWSA oversight if the state legislation passes. Gov. Tom Wolf supports letting PWSA handle full lead service line replacements itself, his spokesman J.J. Abbott said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Mr. Wolf “continues to evaluate various options for potential state funding and other resources to help manage legacy lead issues, including public and private service lines,” Mr. Abbott said.

Adam Smeltz: 412-263-2625, asmeltz@post-gazette.com@asmeltz.

 

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