PITTSBURGH (CN) – Newly indicted over its botched response to lead-poisoning risks, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority reached a $50 million settlement Thursday that includes water-line replacements and filters for low-income residents.
The Natural Resources Defense Council has flagged Pittsburgh’s lead levels as high since at least 2016, but even low levels of lead have been shown to cause serious and permanent nervous system damage — particularly in pregnant women and small children. The NRDC estimates that Pittsburgh’s is the second-largest water system in the country well over the action level for lead set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Just last week, the crisis inspired the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office to bring criminal charges. Though the Pittsburgh Water Authority undetook a lead pipe replacement program in 2016 and 2017, prosecutors say post-construction testing showed lead levels in the water had actually increased. placing more than 150 households at elevated risk of lead poisoning.
Though the agency previously admitted civil liability, paying out $2.4 million in fines to the state, it will fight the criminal charges.
Thursday’s settlement meanwhile will force the authority to prioritize replacements in neighborhoods that face the greatest risk of lead exposure, while also providing residents with more resources like free filters and replacement cartridges. The city is committing as well to more time spent talking to residents who refuse to get their water lines replaced. Additionally, PWSA will restrict its use of partial lead line replacements, which often lends to short-term lead level increases in the water.
“Safe water is a right, not a luxury,” Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy, the executive director of local advocacy branch Pittsburgh United, said in a statement Thursday. “We believe every family in Pittsburgh deserves to drink safe water from their taps without high water bills breaking the bank.”
That sentiment was echoed by Dimple Chaudhary, a senior attorney with the NRDC who chaired a prominent lawsuit against the city of Flint, Michigan, and its officials.
“It’s what Pittsburgh — and every community in America — deserves,” Chaudhary said in a statement, noting that solving local crises like these “requires aggressive, affordable solutions to protect public health and hold officials accountable to the people they serve.”
The authority also pledged to replace 3,800 public water lines as well as 2,800 privately owned lines within the next two years. These replacements will be funded by grants and a loan from the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority.
In a January article by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the PWSA estimated about 12,500 of its 81,000 residential service connections had been made with lead; it had plans in place to replace them by 2026. The authority is now expected to replace at least 7 percent of these lines each year.
To help cover the cost of the settlement, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission approved a motion by the PWSA Thursday to raise water and sewer service rates up to 14 percent for residents. This increase is expected to generate an additional $21 million for the authority.