On Oct. 12 of last year, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority filed a lawsuit against Veolia Water North America, a private water-utility management company that had been contracted to improve PWSA’s operations.
“PWSA placed its trust and confidence in Veolia to properly manage and improve the Authority,” PWSA Chairman Alex Thomson said in a statement. “Despite receiving significant sums from PWSA, Veolia failed to perform as required. This failure has resulted in significant damages to PWSA and left the Authority in a worse position than when Veolia was engaged. The Board is committed to PWSA aggressively pursuing its claims against Veolia.”
One of PWSA’s claims is that Veolia was responsible for a switch in the corrosion-control chemicals used to minimize the amount of lead that leaches into the water supply. Many believe that this switch has contributed to the high lead levels in Pittsburgh’s drinking water.
But in an email sent on Oct. 16, 2015, almost exactly one year before PWSA filed its lawsuit, and recently obtained by City Paper through a right-to-know request, PWSA maintenance superintendent Glenn Lijewski appears to take credit for the chemical switch.
“I also wanted to bring up the fact that, we here at the treatment plant accomplished tremendous savings, via in-house treatment changes,” Lijewski wrote. “We are now using caustic soda for final pH adjustment versus soda ash.”
The email continues, “Traditionally soda ash was the preferred method because of cost. Caustic soda was always more expensive. But we noticed that while soda ash prices were rising the cost of Caustic [sic] was dropping. So, we internally started to use Caustic in place of Soda Ash [sic] whenever possible, and to obtain a base line in usage versus cost. We found that we can significantly save money using Caustic … The bottom line, does not lie.”
This email is just the latest shoe to drop in the ongoing circus that has become the city’s water system. While it would seem to place the blame for the switch on PWSA’s shoulders, many aren’t quick to let Veolia off the hook. Local activists want to see the state attorney general file suit against the corporation, and the city isn’t backing down from its suit either.
“Veolia was in control of the management and operations of PWSA under a contract formed under the prior administration,” says Kevin Acklin, Pittsburgh Mayor Peduto’s chief of staff. “We believe that Veolia made and approved all critical decisions for the authority, including with respect to anti-corrosive chemicals, and further took actions to enrich themselves to the detriment of the residents of Pittsburgh. PWSA terminated [Veolia’s] contract and filed a lawsuit to recover … the damages they caused to the city’s water system. We intend to hold them accountable in pending litigation.”
But some believe the battle between the city and Veolia is simply a distraction from the very real threat that lead presents to city residents. These critics say it’s time for the city to get to work to actually address the problem.
“It seems to me that there’s so much we don’t know, but from everything I’ve reviewed, it seems there’s culpability to be shared,” says Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner. “All areas throughout the country that have lead lines, if they don’t have this problem already, they will. The corrosion-control change at a minimum accelerated that problem. But this is a fixable problem.”
The events leading to PWSA’s lawsuit against Veolia were set in motion in April 2016, when PWSA was cited by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for not notifying DEP of the corrosion-control chemical switch. At the time, PWSA and the city quickly released statements saying Veolia was responsible.
“This order is being issued related to a procedural violation that was made by PWSA’s former management firm, Veolia Inc.,” Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said in a statement at the time in response to DEP’s action. “It has been reported to us that Veolia Inc. did not inform DEP of a change in corrosion control methods in 2014. In addition, the board of PWSA was not notified of the change, neither was the City of Pittsburgh.”
Veolia maintained then, and continues to maintain, that it was not responsible. And this year, the company filed a countersuit against the city for defamation.
“The 2014 change from soda ash to caustic soda was not initiated by (or at the direction of) Veolia’s team nor was it part of Veolia’s and PWSA’s contract metrics. Veolia did not and would not prioritize cost savings ahead of effective corrosion-control methods or water quality. Veolia in no way received any financial payment related to PWSA’s decision to change corrosion control,” Veolia said in a statement.
The current situation is a clear example of why private corporations shouldn’t be involved in public utilities, says Gabriel McMorland, a co-founder of Pittsburgh’s Our Water campaign. He says that’s the lesson the city should take away from this.