How Pennsylvania's Failing Water System is Hurting You by Wallace McKelvey, Tapped Out

June 26, 2018

A cascade of failures mean that Pennsylvanians can no longer take clean water, a right so important it's enshrined in the state constitution, for granted.

Utilities across the state struggle to maintain aging water delivery and treatment systems that need at least $16.8 billion in upgrades over the next two decades. Meanwhile, a decade of budget cuts handed down by successive governors and legislatures gutted the state Department of Environmental Protection. That, in turn, led to systemic failures to adequately inspect those systems and to ensure problems are corrected.

“There are so many problems, there isn’t one fix,” said one drinking water inspector, “and with water quality the plain truth is we don’t know what we don’t know.”

Six current and former inspectors spoke to PennLive on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to comment publicly or feared professional reprisal if they did.

They told similar stories of reduced oversight, increased risk and the frustration that comes with their dawning realization that protecting public health was no longer a priority.

Why does this matter? In Pennsylvania, five people died and 38 others were sickened as a result of waterborne disease outbreaks directly linked to drinking water between 2009 and 2014, according to the CDC, although such incidents—like virtually all public health data—are underreported. Other health risks, such as exposure to lead and carcinogens, may not become apparent for years or decades.