Pennsylvania’s top cop has charged the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority with 161 criminal counts relating to PWSA’s handling of a lead water crisis and lead remediation efforts.
The charges allege violations of the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act and were filed by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office last week.
It’s certainly unusual for a utility to be criminally charged, but it’s not unheard of. In California, the state’s largest utility, PG&E, was convicted on felony counts related to a deadly pipeline explosion in 2010 that saw the company fined $3 million and its employees ordered to perform thousands of hours of community service. The company could also face charges of murder and manslaughter related to last year’s deadly wildfires in California.
Shapiro’s office could not recall a prior instance of a utility, public or otherwise, being criminally charged in Pennsylvania but says the case against PWSA follows a “rigorous exam of the facts.”
But what are those facts? What do the charges mean? What are the potential punishments? And is this an attempt by law enforcement officials, in a state plagued by water quality issues, to prove they’re finally taking it seriously?
We attempt to answer these questions and more here.
What are the charges?
There are 161 counts in total, all third-degree misdemeanor violations of Pennsylvania’s Safe Drinking Water Act.
In a press conference on Friday, Shapiro said that under the law, PWSA was required to take three steps to address a lead level above 15 parts per billion that was found in Pittsburgh’s water system in 2016. Fifteen parts per billion is the federal threshold for intervention.
The first step involved replacing 7 percent of lead service lines by June of 2017.
The second mandated that consumers be notified at least 45 days before line replacements due to an associated and temporary rise in the risk of lead exposure. And the third required the collection of samples from replaced lines to analyze lead content within 72 hours of the new pipes being installed.
Shapiro said PWSA “admitted its failure to provide many residents with advance notice of the lines’ replacement” and “acknowledged it had not collected water samples from those same residences with new pipes within 72 hours of installation.”
On the latter claim, PWSA Executive Director Robert Weimar told The Incline by phone that it was customers who collected the samples, adding, “We can give people sample bottles but we can’t mandate they take the samples. The fact that folks didn’t do something within 72 hours may be an issue, but it’s hard for us to be held responsible.”
The authority also fell short of the mandated 7 percent lead line replacement goal, hitting just 415 service lines of the 1,314 needed by June of 2017. (Line replacements continued after that and continue today.)
But the charges filed by the AG’s office last week relate specifically to PWSA’s alleged failure to properly notify residents of service line replacements and to collect water samples within three days of those replacements being completed.
This as the Pennsylvania DEP already fined the PWSA $2.4 million for, among other things, its failure to meet the June 2017 deadline for lead line replacements.
How did the charges come about?
After that DEP fine and a related consent decree, Shapiro says representatives of the DEP referred the case to him for a criminal investigation.
“The referral was narrowly tailored to review PWSA’s failure to notify residents and its failure to sample water after replacement lines were installed,” reads a press release from Shapiro’s office.
After receiving the referral, Shapiro’s office launched an investigation that ultimately produced the 161 charges filed against the authority last week.
The DEP declined comment for this article when reached by The Incline.
Why 161 counts?
The 161 counts correspond to 161 households in Pittsburgh where Shapiro says the authority failed to notify residents of its water line replacements and failed to conduct sampling.
Weimar said these figures were self-reported to the DEP as part of PWSA’s consent decree with the environmental agency.
The consent decree says the PWSA failed to provide notice of service line replacements to 60 homes between 2016 and 2017 and failed to collect a sample of water after replacements had been completed at 149 homes in that same time period. Some homes were counted in both categories.
Health officials insist there is no safe level of lead, with children younger than 6 especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Video: Water Service Line Replacement: What to Expect