December 18, 2017

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Citizen groups call for investigation of former manager of city water manager

By Don Hopey for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Grassroots groups on Monday called for a state investigation of what they claim was mismanagement of Pittsburgh’s water system in 2012-15 by Veolia, a private firm hired to provide oversight and reduce operating costs for the city’s aging water system.

Against a seasonal, street theater backdrop in which activists portrayed Veolia as the Grinch, and a water main break and ongoing boil water advisory in the city’s East End, Aly Shaw, an organizer for the group Our Water, urged Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., to forward her September complaint to state Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

The investigation of the complaint, Ms. Shaw said, could result in Veolia being held financially responsible for actions resulting in higher lead concentrations in the public water supply, including funding for the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority’s required multimillion-dollar lead water line replacement work.

 ‘We’re hoping to spur action,” said Alissa Weinman, an organizer for the group Corporate Accountability. “The focus has been on the PWSA, but the city hired Veolia to manage the system and after it was done, the system was in worse shape.”

Mike Manko, Mr. Zappala’s spokesman, said the district attorney’s office is reviewing information it has received about PWSA, but would not specify whether Veolia is part of the review and has “no time frame on when that review will be complete.” Joe Grace, a spokesman for Mr. Shapiro said the the AG’s office had not received any referral from Mr. Zappala’s office.

The PWSA board hired Veolia North America-Northeast LLC, to oversee operation of the water system in July 2012, but fired the firm in December 2015. Greg Akili, project coordinator for Corporate Accountability, said Veolia was paid $11 million to manage PWSA and should be held accountable.

“How did we end up with high water lead levels? Who’s responsible and what’s the consequences?” Mr. Akili said. “Veolia can’t just do this to people.”

A performance audit of the PWSA by City Controller Michael Lamb in February 2016 blamed Veolia for several of the authority’s problems involving incompatible meters, billing and the anti-corrosion chemical change that resulted in higher than allowable lead concentrations in some tap water.

Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner said calls for a full investigation of Veolia have her support.

“We need to make sure that the full cost of lead water line replacement doesn’t fall on the ratepayers and insist that the private water management company be held accountable,” she said.

Veolia, which is involved in ongoing arbitration over a number of claims related to its PWSA contract, said it couldn’t comment on the complaint without seeing its allegations.

Alethea Harney, a Veolia spokeswoman said in an emailed statement called the portrayal of Veolia as Grinch a publicity stunt that was “misguided and off base.”

She said the PWSA pipes were in poor condition before the authority hired Veolia and the company didn’t cause the lead water problems. She said Veolia helped PWSA realize at least $5.5 million in annually recurring revenue and efficiencies.

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