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Editorial: PWSA needs to clean water, clean up its act - The Pitt News

The Pitt News

Editorial: PWSA needs to clean water, clean up its act

Ashley+Brown%2C+a+junior+neuroscience+major%2C+reaches+into+a+cooler+to+buy+water+for+her+and+her+sorority+sisters+after+a+water+alert+was+issued+by+the+city+of+Pittsburgh+on+Tuesday+evening.+Stephen+Caruso+%7C+Online+Visual+Editor
Ashley Brown, a junior neuroscience major, reaches into a cooler to buy water for her and her sorority sisters after a water alert was issued by the city of Pittsburgh on Tuesday evening. Stephen Caruso | Online Visual Editor

Ashley Brown, a junior neuroscience major, reaches into a cooler to buy water for her and her sorority sisters after a water alert was issued by the city of Pittsburgh on Tuesday evening. Stephen Caruso | Online Visual Editor

Ashley Brown, a junior neuroscience major, reaches into a cooler to buy water for her and her sorority sisters after a water alert was issued by the city of Pittsburgh on Tuesday evening. Stephen Caruso | Online Visual Editor

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

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By now, everyone in Oakland knows we’re in hot water. But that doesn’t mean the city’s water problems are anything new.

An advisory put out by the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority Tuesday night urged residents of areas serviced by the water filtration plant in Highland Park, including Oakland, not to drink tap water before boiling it. According to Bernard Lindstrom, PWSA interim executive director, low levels of chlorine used to purify the drinking water were to blame.

Lindstrom called the advisory a “super, super cautious” measure, put in place in case the lack of purifying chemicals in the water had allowed dangerous parasites to infect the water supply. But as City Council Members Theresa Kail-Smith and Dan Gilman pointed out, the crisis is hardly an anomaly for the city’s utility management.

From 2012 to 2016, Pittsburgh outsourced its water utilities to private contractor Veolia North America, a multinational company based in Paris that provides utility services to municipalities across the country. Notable among these municipalities is the city of Flint, Michigan, where the company currently faces prosecution by Michigan’s attorney general for professional negligence, public nuisance and fraud. According to the state, the company “knew or should have known that high chloride levels” in the water treated by the company would corrode pipes and allow dangerous levels of lead to enter the drinking water supply.

The city of Pittsburgh filed a lawsuit last October for damages the company may have done to the water utilities, including allegations that the corrosive chemicals Veolia used to treat water had similar effects to city pipeline’s as they had in Flint.

The lawsuit against the contractor has yet to be decided. Regardless of the outcome, the concerning policies that have characterized the PWSA’s management over the past several years have yet to cease.

Payments on the massive debts Veolia ran up during their control of Pittsburgh’s water system continue to consume nearly half of the agency’s budget. Money shortages led to regular staff cuts that have continued even after the city and the contractor chose to part ways.

While it’s impossible to draw a direct connection between the cutbacks in personnel at the utilities department and this week’s crisis, it’s hard to see them making future water problems any easier to avoid.

Mayor Bill Peduto, who spoke in Point Breeze Wednesday night, called the advisory overcautious.

“If you lived in any other state, you’d be drinking the water,” Peduto said. “We wouldn’t be closing down schools.”

But this shouldn’t assuage our concern. The water advisory does not represent an overabundance of prudence — true caution would require the greatest amount of concern for the safety of drinking water before, not after, public health crises occur.

City Council Member Darlene Harris called on PWSA Tuesday to refund customers who had paid for and been exposed to the potentially contaminated water. This should be the agency’s first step to rebuilding trust with the city community that it is meant to serve. City officials should be committed to giving PWSA the resources it needs, but leadership in the agency itself must also show greater judgment — there’s enough blame to go around for everyone.

Water is not a luxury. We’re not “proud” of PWSA or the city for their cautious approach to the most recent blunder in our supply, and hope this is the last time we have to drink from the pot.

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Editorial: PWSA needs to clean water, clean up its act