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Pittsburghers pour forth water concerns at East Liberty town hall

Brandon Delange, 28, of Detroit, Mich. talks with Flint Rising organizer Nayyirah Shariff and Corporate Accountability International's Alissa Weinman

More than 200 city residents packed the town hall-style meeting Tuesday evening in East Liberty about Pittsburgh’s lead water problems, and if concern, frustration and anger came in bottles they would have held gallon jugs.

Nayyirah Shariff, a community activist from Flint, Mich., stepped to the podium and said she understood because she’s seen it before, in 2014 when lead water levels went sky high in her home town.

She urged the crowd to get organized and get involved in the management and decision-making of the city’s main water supplier, Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, if they wanted a clean, lead-free, affordable water supply.

“Some things are troubling here. Your needs are dismissed by your government and that’s something that has to change,” said Ms. Shariff, who formed the community organization Flint Rising in 2016 and is its director. She was invited to Pittsburgh to speak by Our Water Campaign, a coalition of eight environmental groups promoting a safe, affordable, publicly controlled water supply in Pittsburgh.

Ms. Shariff said she believes that clean, affordable water is a human right, while charging high water rates and requiring homeowners to pay for lead service line replacement isn’t fair, especially to city residents who live below the poverty line. She said 42 percent of Flint residents and 12.3 percent of Pittsburghers are on the wrong side of that line.

“Things need to be fair for all. In Flint people made decisions in terms of dollars and cents and not based on what’s best for public health,” Ms. Shariff said. “The city should pay for water line replacement. If we care about the lives and homes of our cities’ residents, and about keeping families intact, that’s what we should do.

“It’s not up to us to pay for it. It’s up to us to demand it.”

Ms. Shariff’s talk was followed by a discussion panel that featured Pittsburgh Councilwoman Deb Gross; Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, executive director of Women for a Healthy Environment; Dr. Christopher Conti, of Primary Care Health Services; Corporate Accountability International’s Alissa Weinman; and Glenn Grayson Jr. of One Pennsylvania.

Ms. Gross said who will pay for lead service line replacement in Pittsburgh is “an open question,” and an important one.

“I think this is a serious issue,” said Ms. Gross, who is also City Council’s representative on the PWSA board. “I want to have safe water. I have small children and i have a lead service line. We’re going to have to put our voices together to highlight the problem. We’ve been all about building a great city here but we have to pay attention to what’s under the ground as well.”

Mr. Grayson said water is a social, economic and racial issue, and noted that PWSA’s rates are scheduled to increase by 13 percent this year.

“We can’t be one of the nation’s most livable cities if we have undrinkable water,” he said. “And we can’t continue to pay high water rates for a service we’re not receiving back. We need affordable, clean water and we need to make sure we have a seat at the table where decisions are made.”

Mr. Grayson and all the other panel members expressed strong opposition to any change that would privatize the city’s water authority operations or create a “public-private partnership,” one of the options the city has considered.

Ms. Weinman said a decline in federal money support for public water operations has opened the door for private water companies to move in to many municipal and metropolitan areas.

“But involving a private water company is never the solution,” she said. “Public water providers are democratically controlled water systems that best protect the public.”

Lead levels in the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority service area exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency drinking water standards last year, possibly due to a change in corrosion inhibitor chemicals that occurred in 2014 and allowed lead to slowly leach out of lead service lines and welds.

The PWSA estimates that 20 to 25 percent of the systems 83,000 customers may have lead service lines and could be at risk for elevated lead levels in their water.

Mr. Grayson and Ms. Naccarati-Chapkis said the PWSA needs to do a better job finding lead service lines and telling the public where they are.

“A lot of people are not even aware of the ongoing problem,” Mr. Grayson said. “But they need to know what their options are to make good decisions.”

Members of Our Water Campaign include the Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter, One Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh United, Clean Water Action, Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, Nine Mile Run Watershed, New Voices for Reproductive Justice and Thomas Merton Center.

Photo: Self-described "full time water protector" Brandon Delange, 28, of Detroit, Mich. talks with Flint Rising organizer Nayyirah Shariff and Corporate Accountability International's Alissa Weinman at the "Not Another Flint" panel discussion on Tuesday, April 11, 2017. By: Liz Reid, 90.3/WESA

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