Activists say Wilkinsburg-Penn Joint Water Authority should address concerns over lead and water costs

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An advocate group calls on a local water authority to create a program to help low-income customers who need help paying their bills, and to completely replace lead service lines in communities that it serves and suffer from higher rates of lead poisoning.

They say the Wilkinsburg-Penn Joint Water Authority, which serves about 40,000 customers in the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh, should also create a community advisory committee related to lead issues, and end partial lead line replacements, which can make lead problems worse.

The agency responded to inquiries.

Residents should have water that is both affordable and safe, said Talor Musil, health policy manager at Women for a Healthy Environment, one of the organizations, with Get The Lead Out, Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh United’s Our Water. campaign, pushing for change.

They plan to hold a rally outside of the monthly water authority board meeting on Robinson Boulevard. in Wilkinsburg Tuesday night.

Musil and others point to the authority’s lead test results posted online that show an increase in lead levels in recent years (although the amount remains below the allowed level of 15 parts per billion) and that ‘A number of communities served by WPJWA have high incidences of lead poisoning in children (although lead pipes are not the only potential source of lead poisoning).

Lead is a neurotoxin particularly harmful to young children; lead poisoning is irreversible.

Ashley Comans, a Wilkinsburg resident, said hearing about the agency’s water campaign, she was worried, as the mother of a two-year-old.

“Drinking water in my house shouldn’t be a health risk,” she said. Comans said his family uses a water filter.

Lead is not present in the water leaving the WPJWA treatment facility or in its water lines, according to information posted on the agency’s website. “However, lead can be present in old service lines connecting homes to the water system or household plumbing,” he notes.

WPJWA is the state’s fifth largest water authority, according to its website. It serves Braddock Hills, Chalfant, Churchill, East McKeesport, East Pittsburgh, Edgewood, Forest Hills, North Braddock, Pitcairn, Rankin, Swissvale, Trafford, Turtle Creek, Wilkinsburg, Wilkins Township, Wilmerding and parts of Braddock, Monroeville, Penn Hills , North Huntington, North Versailles and Pittsburgh, according to its website. Its 13 board members come from some of the communities served by the authority.

Other local utilities have dealt with similar issues; The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority has replaced thousands of lead service lines since 2016.

Earlier this year, the state announced a $ 9.3 million grant from the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority (PENNVEST) to the Wilkinsburg Penn Joint Water Authority to replace approximately 1,000 lead service lines, or 40,000 feet. of piping.

This summer, three Democratic state lawmakers – Senator Jay Costa, State Representative Summer Lee, and State Representative Ed Gainey – sent letters to WPJWA’s board and executive director, calling the agency to establish a community intervention advisory committee that could provide feedback on how to improve communication and influence the inventory and replacement of the lead line.

“Since the award notice by PENNVEST, we know that the Authority has held several meetings with staff regarding this project. We believe that as part of the process, it is important that the Authority creates a comprehensive community engagement strategy to further increase community responsiveness, increase transparency and ensure that all those affected by the project get the most benefit. possible of this funding, ”the lawmakers wrote.

Several other local utilities have customer assistance programs to help low-income residents pay their bills.

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority has several programs to help low-income clients, although it has been criticized in the past for low enrollment rates in some programs. Its bill rebate program offers eligible customers a rebate on the first 1,000 gallons of water, and the hardship cash assistance program is to help forgive arrears.

Pennsylvania American Water also offers low income customer rebates and grants through the Dollar Energy Fund.

While not dealing specifically with WPJWA, generally speaking, municipal utilities tend to offer less protections to consumers than those subject to the oversight of the Utilities Commission, said Elizabeth Marx, executive director. of the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project, which assists low-income utilities. customers.

“What should be included in a termination notice, how long people have to update their account, access to payment terms, what types of fees can be charged, whether a person with a medical problem can be terminated, whether or not consumers can be closed in winter, all of this kind of things we’re used to in the big regulated power, gas and water companies in Pennsylvania, none of them exist or exist in a very truncated way, ”for the utilities run by the companies. municipalities, Marx said.

Fortunately, I am able to pay my water bill, ”said Comans, a resident of Wilkinsburg. “But know that there is no consistent option of support for people who may need help with their offered bills. [through] our water authority was also troubling because, you know, we’re all going through a tough time right now.

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