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Pennsylvania’s lawmakers look to streamline replacement of lead utility service lines By Liz Navratil and Adam Smeltz / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pennsylvania’s lawmakers look to streamline replacement of lead utility service lines

August 14, 2017 6:30 AM

By Liz Navratil and Adam Smeltz / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

http://www.post-gazette.com/news/politics-state/2017/08/14/Pittsburgh-Water-and-Sewer-Authority-PWSA-home-water-line-repair-pa-state-budget/stories/201708140016

 

Amid the budget impasse enveloping Harrisburg this summer, legislators slipped into state spending bills language that would empower the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority to help homeowners replace their lead service lines.

The provision, tucked into a document called the fiscal code, would allow PWSA and similar agencies across the state to replace or repair privately owned segments of select utility lines — but only if the work would “benefit the public health, public water supply system or public sewer system.” Municipal authorities would have to consider the “availability of public funds, equipment, personnel and facilities” before starting.

Backed by the Senate last month, the measure could ease complete replacements for thousands of lead service connections in Pittsburgh as PWSA tries to eliminate the hazardous metal. Yet a final vote is uncertain, delayed while advocates wait for lawmakers to return to the Capitol.

“We think that helping Pittsburgh solve this infrastructure problem could be a model for other municipalities,” said Kevin Acklin, chief of staff under Mayor Bill Peduto. Mr. Peduto’s office has argued that enlisting PWSA to handle private lead line work would streamline the replacements, which are expected to continue for years.

Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, floated similar legislation in the past, but it gained traction after PWSA’s problems intensified in recent months. A version of his proposal easily passed the Senate but has not come up for a floor vote in the House.

Mr. Fontana said in a statement that he pushed to include the language in the fiscal code because “this funding flexibility is too crucial to our communities for it to senselessly languish in the House.” In a separate interview, he said House Speaker Mike Turzai — an Allegheny County Republican — could seek to delete the Senate-approved language. The GOP controls both chambers.

“He could take it out if he is so inclined,” Mr. Fontana said. “I think that will just ignite the situation even more if he does, but that’s certainly something he could do.”

Exactly what House Republicans will do with the Senate bills — let alone the language about line replacements — remains to be seen.

“A number of members definitely have that question about why it would be in the fiscal code,” said Steve Miskin, a spokesman for the House Republicans. “As to what ends up happening, it’s too early to definitively tell you.”

“It’s a policy discussion,” Mr. Miskin said. “Should public money be used [on] private properties?”

He said Mr. Turzai, of Marshall, introduced different legislation that would bring the PWSA under the authority of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission. That legislation is awaiting a vote in the Senate.

Mr. Peduto and his administration support the PUC idea, Mr. Acklin said. “But PUC oversight itself won’t solve some of the issues that we need [to resolve].”

Mr. Acklin said he and the mayor met with Mr. Turzai earlier this summer and encouraged him to support the line replacement efforts. “By the end, I think the speaker understood where we were coming from,” he said.

Elevated lead levels triggered a federal remediation rule in 2016, requiring that PWSA replace at least 7 percent of its lead service lines each year. Service lines connect a building’s in-house plumbing to a main beneath the street.

Up to 17,750 residential service lines in the PWSA system — or about 25 percent of those connections —- include lead, according to the authority. Exposure to the metal is linked to developmental problems and other ailments.

Yet the replacement mandate applies only to the publicly owned portion of the service lines. That’s the segment closest to the water main.  The privately owned portion — which belongs to the property owner — completes the connection into the building and often includes lead, too.

Under current state law, city officials have argued PWSA doesn’t have legal authority to replace those privately owned portions when workers swap out the public pipe. That’s especially problematic because research links the so-called “partial line replacements” to an elevated risk of lead contamination.

PWSA halted partial replacements in June after higher-than-acceptable lead levels appeared at some homes with the work. The authority is negotiating with the state Department of Environmental Protection on a order to govern ongoing and future line replacements.

In the meantime, Pittsburgh City Council passed local legislation that would let the city serve as a legal vehicle to help replace private lead lines, a process that could run several thousand dollars apiece. Mr. Acklin has said the city could turn over the duty to PWSA if the state legislation wins final approval.

“The real rub is having the financial resources to do this at scale,” Mr. Acklin said. He said the Peduto administration has sought state financial support as a low-interest loan, hoping that lead removal “does not become a political football tossed around as part of budget negotiations.” It’s uncertain how much PWSA customers could pay directly toward the private line work.

It’s also unclear when the House will return to Harrisburg to work on the budget bills. Legislators this year passed a nearly $32 billion spending plan but not a way to pay for it. Negotiators have struggled with how to plug a $1.5 billion shortfall in the last fiscal year and a $700 million deficit in the fiscal year that began July 1.

The Senate passed several budget-related bills in late July, including the fiscal code that contains the language about water and sewer line replacements. Together, those bills would balance the budget in part by taxing natural gas drilling and raising or imposing new taxes on consumers’ telephone, electric and gas bills.

House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, said last week that his caucus has concerns about some of the taxes. While many people would like to wrap up the budget by the end of the month, “we want to make sure we get it right, not just do it for the sake of doing it,” he said.

Liz Navratil: lnavratil@post-gazette.com, 717-787-2141, @LizNavratil. Adam Smeltz: asmeltz@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2625, @asmeltz.

 

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