Why Pittsburgh’s representatives in Harrisburg support state oversight of PWSA

The mayor’s on board, too.

Pittsburgh residents filled up water containers during a precautionary flush and boil advisory in February 2017.

Pittsburgh residents filled up water containers during a precautionary flush and boil advisory in February 2017.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
Sarah Anne Hughes

A proposal to put the troubled Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority under state oversight is now in the hands of the Pa. Senate after unanimously passing the House.

The introduction of the bill, which would place PWSA under Public Utility Commission control, came as a surprise to even Mayor Bill Peduto. The mayor told reporters he wasn’t consulted about the legislation before it was introduced by House Speaker Mike Turzai and Rep. Harry Readshaw in late May.

But during a trip to Harrisburg last week, Peduto met with Turzai and other lawmakers, according to a spokesperson. Peduto also met with Patrick McDonnell, who previously worked for the PUC and is now head of the regulatory Department of Environmental Protection.

“The mayor welcomes all oversight and assistance for PWSA, including calls for oversight by the PUC,” spokesperson Tim McNulty said by email.

In previous statements about the bill, Peduto said his administration was open to additional assistance but not to “PUC oversight [that] would not be used as a mechanism to force privatization.”

When asked about that concern, McNulty said, “The mayor has clearly and consistently been against any privatization of PWSA, and the city has not identified anything in the legislation that could lead to it.”

That was echoed by a few of the nine representatives in the state House who represent parts of Pittsburgh. The Incline reached out to each one to see why they voted in favor of the proposal. These are the responses we received.

Dom Costa, District 21

“It seems like there’s not a lot of oversight that’s currently working,” Costa said by phone. He said the bill’s intent is to make sure the drinking water in Pittsburgh is “safe and consumable.”

He added that he still hears about billing problems. “They’re not getting their billing problems solved,” he said. “It seems like we’re getting very little cooperation.”

Costa said Peduto “has done a couple of things” and “tried to right the ship,” but “it’s not stabilizing fast enough.”

“We need someone who has some knowledge of what’s going on to have some oversight,” he said, adding that there’s “too much inconsistency. … It’s like who’s on first.”

Costa said it’s “absolutely untrue” that the bill is a backdoor to privatizing PWSA. “Our concern is the safety and well-being of the people that PWSA serves,” he said.

Paul Costa, District 34

Could not be reached for comment.

Daniel Deasy, District 27

Could not be reached for comment.

Dan Frankel, District 23

“There’s no question that PWSA is facing challenges on several fronts,” Frankel said in a statement. “Additional oversight from the PUC could help sort out problems with infrastructure, billing, and organizational restructuring. For that reason, I voted with the rest of my colleagues in the House to send this bill over to the Senate for further consideration. It is my hope that city officials will be given the chance to weigh in on this legislation and have a say in how this transition ultimately plays out.”

Ed Gainey, District 24

Through a member of his staff, he declined to comment.

Dan Miller, District 42

“It looks like a real collaborative approach,” said Miller by phone, adding that he has spoken to the mayor’s office about the bill.

Adam Ravenstahl, District 20

In a phone call, Ravenstahl called PWSA oversight a “public safety issue.”

“Any additional oversight that we can provide is a good thing,” he said. “Not to place blame, but things quite frankly haven’t been going well.”

Ravenstahl said he hasn’t heard concerns about privatization and isn’t sure where that concern is coming from.

“That obviously would be up to the board and the mayor,” he said. “That would be their decision.”

Harry Readshaw, District 36

Readshaw could not be reached for comment. But as the co-introducer of the bill, Readshaw said in a statement the legislation is “a commonsense approach that will move the system in a positive direction.”

Jake Wheatley, District 19

Could not be reached for comment.