In case you missed it: This week’s best reads from Pennsylvania cities

    Coatesville, a small city in Chester county sold its water and sewer utilities for $48 million to the Pennsylvania American Water Company in 2001. After the sale and a three year rate freeze expired, combined bills increased an average of more than 200 percent. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

    Coatesville, a small city in Chester county sold its water and sewer utilities for $48 million to the Pennsylvania American Water Company in 2001. After the sale and a three year rate freeze expired, combined bills increased an average of more than 200 percent. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

    Lead, utilities and Las Vegas: another week in the Keystone State. 


    More lead news

    There’s a lot of news coming out about lead hazards in your pipes, in your paint and in Pennsylvania as a whole. We’re here to break it down for you. 

    Pipes: If you were to build a house today, you would never use lead pipes for your plumbing. For one thing, it’s illegal. But years ago, lead pipes weren’t just typical, they were often required. In the early 1900s, Philadelphia mandated that city pipes be made of lead. By 1938, an ordinance was passed for the whole state. But now that we know the dangers of lead poisoning, what should cities do with those once-beloved lead pipes? 

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    While cities debate merits, costs and strategies for replacing all lead pipes, there are interim measures that can minimize the hazard. In many cases, water can pass through lead pipes without picking up any dangerous lead. But if the water is corrosive and degrades protective coatings on the pipes, lead can leach into the water supply. One solution? Anti-corrosive materials, like soda ash, can be added to the water. 

    Paint: Seventy percent of Pennsylvania’s current housing stock was built before lead paint was banned in 1978. That means there are a lot of homes in the state that likely have lead paint on the walls, in some cases buried under layers of non-leaded paint. 

    Why hasn’t Pennsylvania removed or permanently covered all this lead paint? Full-scale remediation would be really expensive and it’s often easier for cities to find funding for interim control and education. That can often help get a young child’s lead levels down until their brain is more fully developed. But it doesn’t solve the initial problem: lead paint on the walls. 

    Testing: Is all this talk about lead making you want to test your pipes and walls? There are ways to do that yourself, or get a state-certified lead inspector to do it. 

    But if you have children under the age of six, you may want to start by testing their blood levels. Some states require children to get tested at ages one and two, in an effort to catch lead poisoning sooner rather than later. Pennsylvania currently doesn’t have that requirement, which is how only 14 percent of children in the state got tested for lead in 2014. But that could be changing: there’s legislation being considered in Harrisburg to make lead testing mandatory for children.  

    Utility systems: not so utilitarian anymore

    For a poor city, with an aging water system, selling or leasing that asset can seem to be a win-win solution. The city gets a big payout and the repairs become someone else’s problem. But residents are often the ones who pay the price…literally. 

    Private water companies answer to shareholders, not voters. Nationwide, private water companies charge an average of 55 percent more than public water companies. 

    That difference is even more stark in Pennsylvania, where private water costs 84 percent more than public water. (For the record, it’s the same water.) That hasn’t stopped places like Coatesville, Reading and Scranton from selling and leasing their water systems to make ends meet.

    Gas and electric utility companies are causing problems  for some individuals. A law passed in Pennsylvania in 2004 makes it easier for companies to shut off utilities over missed payments. That puts many low-income families in a troubling spot, particularly in the winter months. 

    PennLive asked how many people have died after having their utilities cut off, either from cold or from using alternative heat sources like a stove. Turns out, that very depressing question is difficult to answer. Advocates say one confirmed outcome is that eviction rates are on the rise, as many landlords require tenants to have utilities turned on. 

    Downtown upgrade

    As we all know, Easton is the Las Vegas of Pennsylvania. Or, at least, the mayor fears that may soon be the case. Color-changing rope lights are a no-no as far as Mayor Sal Panto Jr. is concerned, no matter how much he might enjoy the sushi restaurant that uses the lights to decorate. He says the downtown decor should match the historic buildings Easton offers.

    Pennsylvania has no shortage of historic buildings. But preservationists have concerns similar to Panto’s: as cities begin to grow and change again, will the old be preserved?

    For example, the hotel industry is booming in Pennsylvania. There’s demand for more hotels, in ever-more convenient locations. It’s often easier, and less expensive, to build a new hotel, rather than renovate an old, historic hotel. 

    Preservationists argue you lose something very important when you knock down history in favor of something new. Like the Hotel Bethlehem, which was restored to its former glory by local investors. Dennis Costello, the general manager, says people appreciate the historical feel of the hotel: “With most of the modern brands, whether you’re in Boise or Buffalo or Brooklyn, they all have the same look and feel. Whereas JFK and the Dalai Lama stayed here.” 

    New isn’t always bad — just ask Johnstown. For the first time, the city put a 36-foot musical Christmas tree downtown for the holiday season, and the numbers are in. The city estimates 20,000 people came to see the tree, which sat in the middle of the city of 20,000 residents. Restaurants saw 35 percent more business in December 2015 than December 2014. 

    Melissa Radovanic, president of the Discover Downtown Johnstown partnership, said, “To be completely transparent, I cannot stand here and tell you with 100 percent certainty that these numbers are from the Christmas tree. Knowing that we had 20,000 people in  Central Park this holiday season, I can tell you with probably 98 percent certainty that it was 100 percent caused by the Christmas tree at Central Park.” 

    It’s hard to argue with those numbers.  

    [Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated that private water companies aren’t restricted by rate hike rules. All rate increases for private companies must be approved by the Pa. Public Utility Commission. We regret the error.]

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal