September 13, 2016

Veolia in the driver’s seat of Pittsburgh water failures


Photo credit: Ronald Woan, Flickr, Creative Commons

The lead crisis in Flint, Michigan has received national and international attention, deservedly so. It’s a clear illustration of the deadly toll our lack of investment in public water systems is taking on people’s lives. While the root of Flint’s crisis can be traced to the anti-democratic emergency manager system, the crisis is also a cautionary tale for what happens when the private water industry inserts itself into our public water systems. And unfortunately, Flint is not alone. Pittsburgh has now joined the list of cities with lead crises exacerbated by corporate control of water.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires a city’s water system to take action when lead contamination reaches 15 parts per billion (ppb) in at least 10 percent of homes. As of July, Pittsburgh’s lead levels have far surpassed that limit, with 10 percent of tests testing at least 22 ppb. To give a sense of the gravity of this situation, the same percentage of Flint homes tested this April had lead levels of 22.8 ppb or higher.

What do Flint and Pittsburgh have in common? For one, contracts with notorious water privatizer Veolia. The series of events that resulted in Pittsburgh’s elevated lead contamination can be traced to a detrimental contract between the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) and Veolia under the guise of a “public-private partnership.”

Veolia’s cost-cutting endangers thousands of people

In 2012, Veolia secured a contract with Pittsburgh that gave the corporation top management positions in the city’s water authority. The contract also ensured that Veolia received 50 percent of all savings generated for the city for the duration of the contract and for four years after it ended. The result? Veolia recklessly cut corners in order to maximize its profits.

In 2013 lead levels in Pittsburgh were already just shy of the EPA’s limits. In spite of this, in 2014 under Veolia’s leadership, PWSA switched its corrosion control treatment from soda ash to caustic soda to reduce costs. This switch, in any city, requires approval from the state environmental regulatory agency. Contrary to that rule, nobody at Veolia or the PWSA asked the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) if changing the corrosion control treatment was safe and appropriate for Pittsburgh. But they made the switch anyway.

And in barely three years, lead tests showed contamination had soared past the EPA action level, jumping from 14.8 ppb to 22 ppb.

Lackluster response

In the beginning of 2016, Flint’s lead contamination issues were sparking national concern, and PWSA switched back to the soda ash corrosion control.

In April, the Pennsylvania DEP cited the PWSA for the unapproved 2014 change, and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto laid blame squarely on Veolia for its “procedural violation” in switching the corrosion control method. Shortly after, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette filed a lawsuit against Veolia that included charges of fraud for failing to sound the alarm for lead contamination in Flint, MI and allowing the situation to worsen.

Elevated lead levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cause serious developmental delays in children. In 2014, nearly 10 percent of children in 17 Pennsylvania cities, including Pittsburgh, had blood lead levels above the CDC threshold of 5microg/dL (a measure of lead concentration in the blood stream).

Now, Veolia’s “procedural violation” has endangered residents throughout Pittsburgh. The state Department of Environmental Protection has ordered the city to begin replacing the lead pipes, which will happen at the unacceptably glacial rate of 7 percent of pipes replaced per year.

The PWSA pledges to cover the cost of replacing public water lines, but only up to homeowners’ property lines. They claim that once the pipes are on private property this responsibility shifts to the homeowners and could cost each home $3,000 to $4,000. While homeowners are not required to replace pipes, the PWSA has offered no financial assistance for those who want to replace them, but who cannot afford this costly health necessity.

Not only is this fix impossible for people who can’t pay for the replacement, research suggests that only replacing part of the pipe could actually dislodge lead particles from the remaining pipes, further contaminating the water.

Pull Veolia over

Focused on profits, Veolia risked the health and development potential of Pittsburgh’s children and families. Veolia assaulted the human right to clean, safe water in Pittsburgh. And its track record speaks for itself. No other city need find itself in a similar position as Pittsburgh.

With all of our watchful eyes on the road to clean, public water, we can kick Veolia out of the driver’s seat when it comes to our public water systems. We must ensure that public officials keep their rightful place behind the wheel.

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