Updated 7:25 p.m.
Linking water shutoffs with an increased risk of lead exposure, Pittsburgh advocacy groups succeeded Thursday in pressing the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority to take steps toward addressing what those groups call an overlooked facet of the city’s ongoing water crisis.
Members of the Our Water Campaign and others attended Thursday’s meeting of the PWSA board to call for a moratorium on water service shutoffs in Pittsburgh. This as experts say it takes time for lead to dissolve into water, and that after a long period of non-use, water that has sat in lead pipes can contain higher levels of the heavy metal.
Between January and July of this year, PWSA reports more than 1,600 shutoffs at residences and commercial properties across the city, on par with those totals seen in 2016.
“Science informs us that stagnant water increases the exposure to lead in drinking water,” Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis of Women for a Healthy Environment told the board. “This stagnation could result inside a home that sits vacant for a period of time while it’s on the market for sale, but also when a customer has his or her water shut off.”
Naccarati-Chapkis identified those moving into new homes where service has been halted or water use discontinued and those unable to pay their bills as particularly vulnerable populations. A third group was also identified: those customers on the wrong end of mistakes within PWSA’s sometimes troubled billing system.
“There’s a lot of billing issues that must be addressed,” Margaret Lanier, vice chairperson of the board, agreed.
In response to the concerns of those community members in attendance, the board moved Thursday to create a subcommittee tasked with exploring the feasibility of a shutoff moratorium. The subcommittee will also discuss the possible creation of a Customer Assistance Program and affordability plan meant to protect, as Our Water Campaign messengers put it, low-income ratepayers from “impending” water rate increases and the water service shutoffs that could result.
Board members Lanier, who also serves as city treasurer, and Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Deb Gross were named to the subcommittee. Both will have the ability to recruit additional members with the goal of “com[ing] up with the best proposals and recommendations” possible, board chair Debbie Lestitian said.
But in a city grappling with the implications of a continuing lead water crisis, the push could represent something of a dilemma for PWSA as the entity faces steep costs associated with fixing the problems, the need for rate hikes to fund those fixes and the need for enforcement measures to ensure bills are paid.
“We estimate that if we were to replace the public and private sides of all the lead lines in our system it would be about $360 million,” PWSA spokesman Will Pickering told The Incline prior to Thursday’s meeting. “And that’s not including a plan to upgrade corrosion controls or our aging water treatment plant.”
Pickering continued, “We have a number of aging infrastructure needs and the only way to address them is through our rates.”
This much is clear when considering a recent spate of board-approved rate hikes at the PWSA.
Just last year, the board green-lit a 13 percent rate increase for customers.
Prior to that, in 2013, the board approved a 20 percent hike over four years, putting the average residential water bill of 4,000 gallons at $50.32 a month by 2017, according to the Post-Gazette.
The Guardian said the 2013 rate increase made Pittsburgh’s water more than triple the average midwest cost, based on figures from the American Water Works Association.
And while PWSA says the basis for those figures is unclear and that its rates remain cheaper than those of other water providers in and around the city, groups like the Our Water Campaign argue that rates are still too high for many of the city’s most vulnerable residents, forcing some to endure water service shutoffs and the heightened risks those shutoffs can entail.
Pickering countered that water shutoffs remain a last resort and “something we do use in our collections process, but something we try to avoid at all costs.” He went on to call them “very rare.”
Others may disagree.
In 2016, PWSA performed 2,079 service shutoffs, according to information provided by the authority. Between January and July of this year, it performed 1,656 shutoffs for both residential and commercial customers. PWSA counts a total of 111,167 customer accounts currently. The information provided did not differentiate between voluntary service shutoffs and non-voluntary shutoffs. It also did not distinguish between those involving commercial customers and those involving residential customers.
Pickering added that while there exist PWSA policies exempting some customers with medical conditions from having their water service halted, there are no financial assistance programs providing similar protections for lower-income households currently on the books.
“We do not currently have a formal Customer Assistance Program,” he said, “but it’s an item we recognize the need for, especially in the context of potentially increasing rates in the future.” The subcommittee formed Thursday is expected to help determine what such a program might look like.
The City of Pittsburgh, meanwhile, continues efforts to replace lead service lines, but that effort has reportedly lagged behind initial projections.
The city has also launched a campaign to provide free water filters to customers while undertaking an expansive water testing effort. Testing recently found lead levels at or below the federal threshold for action, with the levels marking a decrease from those previously reported.
But some advocates and community groups say they’re far from satisfied. They’ve also pointed out that no level of lead is safe for human consumption.
At a July press conference with Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner, Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who helped uncover the water crisis in Flint, Mich., said he was encouraged by dropping levels of lead in Pittsburgh’s water but added that “barely getting under this antiquated [federal] standard that no rational people believe is protective enough is not something to brag about.”
To be fair, it doesn’t appear that anyone is.
And while PWSA takes steps to further mitigate the dangers of lead through piecemeal measures, including Thursday’s creation of the moratorium and affordability subcommittee, experts say there are steps that residents themselves can take in homes where service has been shut off and restored.
They include flushing the pipes to clear standing water before using it to cook or drink. It is also suggested that residents let the water run until it is noticeably colder — this may take up to two minutes or more. Flushing each drinking water faucet is recommended after long periods of non-use.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that there have been 1,656 shutoffs between January and July of this year, not “since July” as a PWSA spokesperson originally stated.