(Pittsburgh) December 19, 2016 Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner said today that the results of an audit
by her office show that the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) has not prioritized responding
to local concerns about elevated lead levels in public water in the wake of the crisis in Flint, Mich.
and the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) exceeding federal standards for lead.
“Right now, no agency is taking the lead on ensuring that this issue is addressed–and the
Health Department should be that agency,” Wagner said. “No other agency has the scientific expertise,
the ear of the community on public health issues, the partnerships with the philanthropic community,
and–most importantly–the authority over our fragmented structure of water services.”
The ACHD has assumed primary oversight of the 36 community water systems operating in Allegheny County
by verbal agreement with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), but the lack of
a written agreement between the two agencies has left the scope of the ACHD’s authority unclear and
prevented the ACHD from receiving updated policies and procedures from the DEP, Wagner said.
Wagner called on the ACHD to secure such a written agreement and to step up its efforts to monitor local water providers.
“Allegheny County residents are fortunate to have an additional layer of oversight in the Health Department,
but our review shows that it is not meeting its potential,” she said. “While circumstances certainly differ
in some regards, we know that state and federal oversight was not enough to prevent the crisis in Flint,
and these agencies were indeed shockingly slow in recognizing and acknowledging that there was a problem.”
While each water provider performs its own testing for lead and reports results to the ACHD and DEP,
there is no meaningful oversight of these testing procedures, and the ACHD does not follow up to
validate test resultsor perform additional testing to identify at-risk homes.
The audit noted that while PWSA’s lead levels did not reach the federal action level until this year’s testing,
past results were within a fraction of a percent of triggering action, and other local water providers
have reported results approaching this level with no requirement to notify consumers.
“The community you live in should not be the determinant of what you know about the safety
of your water, especially when we have a Health Department of professionals who could be
monitoring and verifying this data and the manner in which it is collected,” Wagner said.
Wagner said the ACHD should be bolstering PWSA efforts to test concerned customers’ water,
which have been delayed by overwhelming demand, and to ensure all residents of
areas at increased risk get the message about the risks of lead in public water.
While the PWSA is now required to conduct public education and remediation efforts,
residents of at-risk areas served by other water systems may not be aware of elevated lead levels
in their water. Older household plumbing and water lines are the primary risk factors for elevated lead levels.
Wagner said that the type of community education efforts conducted by the ACHD on a variety of public health issues
are needed to educate the community about the risk of lead in public water, and that the ACHD should seek
to partner with the local foundation community to ensure resources are available for these efforts.
“This is an issue that is ripe for the foundation community–one that is at the intersection of
public health, disparities in wealth between families and communities, our aging infrastructure,
and the welfare and growth of our neighborhoods,” Wagner said.
While Wagner called her concerns about the ACHD’s actions on lead “primarily a question of priorities and action,”
she said the audit did uncover concerning lapses in technical aspects of the ACHD’s water oversight. She said that
a Health Department inspection failed to identify the PWSA switching to a corrosion control chemical that was not
approved in its permit, a violation for which it was later cited by the DEP. Additionally, the ACHD allowed a report
to be issued by the PWSA which did not include notice of a policy violation.
She also said that the ACHD’s hiring process for a new supervisor for its Water Program did not reflect
water safety as a priority. The ACHD did not advertise the position, and did not have a new supervisor
in place before his departure. He instead was replaced internally by an employee who had not
previously been involved in the day-to-day activities of the Water Program.
“This is a question of priorities and will–and perhaps casting an eye on agencies that have traditionally not come under
much scrutiny,” Wagner said. “This is too big a question and concern to continue to be left to localities that lack the
wherewithal to truly confront this issue or unaccountable authorities that are content to point fingers elsewhere.”
Wagner said she hopes to consult with the Board of Health and ACHD management
on implementing her recommendations.
“It is time for the Health Department to step up and become the go-to resource on this issue, as they are for
so many others, and to urge water providers to take steps toward remediation of high lead levels,” she said.
The full “Performance Audit Report of the Program Effectiveness
of the Allegheny County Health Department’s Public Drinking Water Division for
the Period January 1, 2014 through December 31, 2015” can be viewed here.