Pittsburgh water problems run deep

By: Rebekah Devorak | Opinions Editor

While the end of the boil-water advisory may have seemed like a final resolution, the problems aren’t over yet for Pittsburgh water.

The Office of City Controller released a February 2017 audit on the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) which detailed several problems with the organization. These issues included poor customer service, inaccurate billing processes, lack of long-term plans, contamination of lead and more. According to city Controller Michael Lamb, most of these stemmed from a deficiency in consistent leadership during the past year.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the PWSA cycled through four different directors since 2015. Lamb said that throughout this time period, the PWSA board did not appear to be “engaged fully” in the organization’s decision-making.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said that the audit’s findings aren’t “relatively new” and have been known about for the last 25 years, especially that the PWSA has no long-term planning.

Given that it is the job of the PWSA director and board members to ensure that the authority has the means to and is capable of providing Pittsburgh with quality, safe drinking water through planning and organizing, that’s what they should be doing at all times. There’s really no reason for them to not be “engaged fully” in making decisions for such a huge component responsible for keeping everyone in the city alive.

One particularly frightening find from the audit was that the PWSA does not have a fully-documented inventory of which water lines in the city contain lead in the piping. According to the audit, the water is lead-free when it leaves the PWSA treatment plants; however, as it travels through the company-owned lines to the lines which are owned by each individual homeowner, some water becomes contaminated with lead.

The audit recommended that the board focus immediately to inspect and eliminate all PWSA lines that may still have lead in them and offer easy ways for homeowners to have their house lines tested for lead, as well. The PWSA’s 2015 Water Quality Report shows that Pittsburgh water had a 14.8 parts per billion level of lead; the federal levels of lead legally allowed are 15 parts per billion.

The fact that the PWSA has no idea which water lines have lead piping and which do not is terrifying. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, drinking lead-contaminated water can lead to slowed growth and behavioral or learning problems in children, premature birth for pregnant women and decreased kidney function in adults, among other serious problems.

Knowing that the PWSA probably knows all of these medical issues that arise from drinking water with lead in it, the organization should’ve ensured that Pittsburgh’s pipes were all safe a long time ago.

The PWSA’s apparent disinterest in serving Pittsburgh properly has also led to problems in other areas. According to the audit, customer service was unsatisfactory because it was found to have an outdated telephone system which did not track analytics or record data about the customer from the calls. The audit also found that 26 percent customer phone calls did not meet the PWSA’s goal of having a wait time of 7 minutes or less, and it also alluded to the fact that emergency phone calls might not go directly to a human dispatcher.

Customer service is a nightmare in any industry, but water is an important utility that can mark the difference between life and death for someone in a relatively short time period. If there is an emergency – an outage, strange-smelling water, gas in the water line – it is important that PWSA customers are able to reach out and have their issues resolved quickly before someone could get sick or hurt. Not having excellent customer service is simply unacceptable here.

Water is something that the PWSA should take very seriously. It’s their actual job to take it seriously. The fact that there are so many problems that could’ve easily been resolved a while ago but have not yet been fixed is shameful, embarrassing and needs to change.