Pittsburgh wants to know why that boil water advisory happened

Mayor Peduto also wants to know why it takes so long to get lead testing results.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
Sarah Anne Hughes

Last week, roughly 100,000 people in Pittsburgh were under a boil water advisory for nearly two days.

Now, the city is looking into how that happened.

Mayor Bill Peduto’s office released a statement this morning outlining an investigation into the advisory, an audit of the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority itself and another study of one long-time complaint from PWSA customers.

The boil water advisory

In the release, Peduto’s office said the Office of Municipal Investigations has already launched an investigation into last week’s boil water advisory. OMI investigates “citizen complaints of civil and/or criminal misconduct alleged against employees of the City of Pittsburgh.”

“With the approval and cooperation of the PWSA Board, OMI has been tasked with a targeted investigation to inform the causes of the irregularities in chlorine readings that led to the order, and inform City and PWSA officials on decisions regarding water testing in the future,” according to the release.

PWSA issued a boil water advisory on Jan. 31 after tests showed low levels of chlorine in treated drinking water at a filtration plant near Highland Park. The Pa. Department of Environmental Protection said in a statement that PWSA was required to issue a “public notice to all consumers of the water within 24 hours of its discovery of the breakdown in treatment evidenced by PWSA’s sampling data.” The state agency told PWSA it could lift the advisory on Feb. 2.

During that time, city officials, including Peduto and his Chief of Staff Kevin Acklin, stressed that there was no known danger to residents. On the day after the advisory was issued, PWSA’s interim executive director Bernard Lindstrom told reporters that the authority had not found any traces of contaminants or bacteria in the water.

The authority itself

Peduto’s office is also working with Auditor General Eugene DePasquale on an audit of PWSA.

That audit was requested by every member of Pittsburgh City Council in a letter to DePasquale and Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

PWSA’s board also plans to ask DePasquale to conduct “performance investigations of authority operations,” per the release. According to the Post-Gazette, PWSA is required to request the audit itself under state rules.

“We’d be going over documents, contracts, billing and looking at how they examine their environmental issues,” DePasquale told WTAE of the investigation. “Again, we’re not scientists. We’d be looking over the contracting issues. Did they ever had an advisory from DEP that showed that there was potentially a problem that they didn’t tackle?”

Lead testing kit results

Peduto is also requesting an “audit of lead testing kits and results sent to authority customers.” According to the release, “From January through December 2016, 6,625 testing kits were ordered from the PWSA but less than half (3,100) were returned for review.”

That information was first reported by TribLive’s Theresa Clift in a story on long wait times for results of lead testing kits, which PWSA customers can request for free. It’s a common and old complaint.

Peduto spokesman Tim McNulty said the “testing kit study will likely be contracted through the PWSA.” A PWSA spokesman said the authority supports the audit.

Like cities and towns across the country, Pittsburgh is dealing with aging water and sewer infrastructure and homes with lead services lines that the authority is working to locate. On top of that, PWSA is suing Veolia, the private company that managed the authority’s operations for several years. The city blames Veolia for changing the type of lead-corrosion-control chemical used to keep lead out of the drinking water, as Pittsburgh City Paper reported.