In light of lead, Pittsburgh activists push for state suit against Veolia

In light of lead, Pittsburgh activists push for state suit against Veolia

Author: Stephen Caruso/Monday, December 18, 2017/Categories: Pittsburgh

As a grinch named “Veolia” tossed presents labeled “clean water” about the Allegheny County Courthouse’s courtyard Monday, Pittsburgh activists made their case for a new investigation into the French corporation blamed for many of the city’s water woes.

Aly Shaw, an organizer with the Our Water Campaign, said at a holiday-themed press conference, complete with Dr. Suess’s green Christmas anti-hero and caroling, that the campaign had filed a formal complaint against Veolia with the Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala’s office a few months ago.

“They are taking it seriously and we think there is something there,” Shaw said of the complaint. She added that Our Water met with an investigator from Zappala’s office last week.

Mike Manko, a spokesperson for Zappala's office, confirmed that his office had received information about the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority and was reviewing it at this time. However, he added the review didn't have a set time frame.

Veolia, who managed the PWSA from 2012 to 2015, disagreed with the campaigns claims, pointing to comments from a former PWSA board member that the infrastructure issues went further back than just Veolia's management

"Despite the false claims by Our Water Campaign, the facts and email evidence are clear: Veolia didn't cause or contribute to the current lead levels in Pittsburgh," a Veolia spokesperson said in a statement.

Any suit would be separate from the one filed by the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority against Veolia last year, which seeks to return contract fees rather than seek money for damage to the water system under Veolia's management.

Under Veolia, PWSA experienced a range of issues, from faulty billing to the firing of employees who monitored water quality to an illegal change in water treatment chemicals that allegedly led to the Pittsburgh skyrocketing lead levels to 22 ppb in 2016.

Many of the issues were in told in song, as members of the Our Water Campaign, dressed in Santa hats, sang of their complaints against Veolia to the tune of “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Deck the Halls.”

If he dug the activist's tune, Zappala could investigate the case himself, or refer it to state Attorney General Josh Shapiro. Shaw said she prefers the latter.

In case of a suit, Pennsylvania would be the third state to bring legal action against Veolia for alleged misconduct while under contract with local authorities, including Michigan which is suing Veolia for not taking action on rising lead levels in Flint.

Shaw saw similarities between the company’s conduct in Flint and in Pittsburgh, where lead levels dramatically increased during Veolia’s tenure after a slow creep upwards during the 2000’s.

From 2001 until 2010, lead levels increased from six parts per billion to ten ppb. From 2010 to 2013, it increased to 14.8 ppb, or .2 below the federally mandated action level.

While the lead level didn’t go above the federal level of 15 ppb until a year after Veolia’s contract ended, Shaw contends that Veolia knew about the increase in lead over time and never informed the PWSA board.

At a meeting last week, the PWSA approved $44 million to replace lead lines to meet the state Department of Environmental Protection’s orders for pipe replacement after the high lead levels came to light.

“That money shouldn’t just come from ratepayers, it should come from Veolia,” Shaw said. “They are partially responsible for the increase.”

Add in many other issues identified in audits by state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale and City Controller Michael Lamb that showed poor management and cuts of authority resources, often incentivized by their contract and Shaw thinks there is a case against Veolia.

The campaign has an ally in seeking further damages from Veolia in County Controller Chelsa Wagner.

Speaking at the press conference, Wagner, who has long championed the lead issue through multiple public statements and audits, said she thought the corporation hadn’t been properly held to account for Pittsburgh’s water troubles.

“It is unacceptable that to this day, no one has been held accountable,” Wagner said. 

This story was updated with comment from Veolia at 12:13 p.m. Dec. 19.