(Pittsburgh) March 8, 2017 Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner issued the following statement in reaction to Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s announcement of a “Safe Water Plan.”

I am encouraged to finally see Mayor Peduto take a step in the right direction in response to our drinking water crisis. The provision of filters to all residents is a necessity, one for which community members and elected officials like me and Councilwoman Gross have been calling for months. I greatly commend Morgan O’Brien of Peoples Gas for his great continued leadership in our region by stepping up to make this need a reality.

The announced low-interest loan program, however, is severely flawed. What must begin, instead, is an immediate effort to replace ALL public and private lead lines.

Residents recognize that homeowners should not have to pick up the tab for a public health emergency caused in large part by the PWSA’s own negligence. A 3 percent interest loan will still be burdensome to low-income families, and the middle class would receive no help under this plan. Multiple current URA loan programs offer zero percent interest, and several are outright grants. There would remain no impetus or incentive for landlords to protect the majority of Pittsburgh residents who are renters.

Far too many Pittsburghers remain unaware that lead lines serve an estimated 25 percent of our homes and of the potentially serious health consequences of elevated blood lead levels for those of all ages, or believe it does not affect them due to unreliable testing and confusing statements.

When the PWSA gave Lawrenceville homeowners the opportunity to replace privately owned lines at their own expense as the authority was working in their neighborhood last year, virtually none took them up on their offer. This is unsurprising in that replacement costs thousands of dollars.

Governments are suited to take on widespread problems like these lead pipes because they can create efficiencies of scale, greatly reducing costs to homeowners. This is what cities around Pennsylvania and the nation have already done relatively quickly, affordably, and efficiently. The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission endorsed this approach just last week for the City of York.

With water and sewer rates rapidly increasing as it is, it is shocking that the City proposes to place an additional burden on homeowners. That PWSA sees fit to spend ratepayer money to hire a “crisis communications expert” to spin the crisis we face but says it cannot help homeowners is shameful.

Finally, continued talk of privatization behind the smokescreen of “public-private partnerships” ignores the fact that private mismanagement of our water helped get us in to this mess–from the 2014 change in corrosion control which spiked lead levels to the risky credit default swaps that led to ballooning debt. We also know that nearly every water privatization that has taken place has led to higher bills for consumers–sometimes increases of several hundred percent.

While I commend the Mayor for finally entering this battle, the war will not be won without full lead line replacement and an end to all privatization efforts. The Mayor must commit to our citizens that dangerous lead lines will be replaced and further harm to our public water resources through privatization will not be permitted.