Water boil advisory continues for thousands of Pittsburgh residents

by Don Hopey and Adam Smeltz, originally posted on February 1, 2017


The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority issued a precautionary water advisory Tuesday for about 100,000 residents in the central and eastern sections of the city, warning them to boil their water before ingesting it due to concerns about possible giardia contamination.

The order also prompted the city school district to close 22 schools and two early childhood centers for Wednesday.

Testing by the state Department of Environmental Protection discovered low levels of chlorine in the water at the Highland Park reservoir and distribution facility, and the department ordered the PWSA to inform its customers of the problem and issue the advisory, which affects about half of the authority’s 83,000 customers.

The low level of chlorine disinfectant could allow giardia, a microscopic parasite, to live in the water supply. Ingestion of giardia can result in an intestinal infection causing cramps, nausea and diarrhea, but no such illnesses attributable to the water supply had been reported, according to the PWSA.

Neither the PWSA nor the DEP provided details about safe chlorine levels and what the levels were Tuesday.

The PWSA released a detailed map of the city neighborhoods subject to the boil-water advisory. It includes Bedford Dwellings, Bloomfield, the Bluff, Crawford, East Liberty, Friendship, Glenwood, Greenfield, Highland Park, Hill District, Homewood, Larimer, Lawrenceville, Lincoln-Lemington, Morningside, Oakland, Point Breeze, Polish Hill, Regent Square, Shadyside, Stanton Heights, Squirrel Hill, Swisshelm Park and Terrace Village.

Customers in those neighborhoods should, until further notice, run their taps for one minute then boil water for one minute and let it cool before using it for drinking, making ice, washing dishes, brushing teeth, watering pets and preparing food. Some but not all in-home water filters can remove giardia and other waterborne viruses.

The Pittsburgh Public Schools said it would close the school buildings and early childhood centers today to give the district time to cover water fountains, prepare food services and acquire bottled water. The schools should reopen Thursday. Only administrators, custodians and food service staff were to report today.

The closed schools are: Allderdice; Arsenal PreK-5; Arsenal 6-8; Colfax; Dilworth; Faison; Fulton; Liberty; Lincoln; Linden; Greenfield; Miller; Minadeo; Milliones; Pittsburgh Montessori; Obama; Science and Technology; Sterrett; Sunnyside; Westinghouse; Weil; and Woolslair. The early childhood centers are Peabody/Obama and Frick.

PWSA Director Bernard Lindstrom said at a late night news conference that he anticipates the advisory will be in effect for no more than three days. but the decision rests with the DEP. He said the water authority would stay in close contact with the DEP until the issue is resolved.

Pittsburgh public safety officials said water buffaloes and bottles of water will be distributed throughout the affected neighborhoods. PWSA and city crews will coordinate delivery of bottled water to all of the schools that fall under the advisory.

The University of Pittsburgh also issued an advisory to students, faculty and administrators Tuesday evening, telling them of the water problems and advising them to flush and boil water before use.

In a statement Tuesday, UPMC said it “is following the PWSA boiled water notice at the hospitals in the affected neighborhoods. As part of our contingency plan for this type of emergency, water supplies, including bottled water, are being distributed to patients and staff. All UPMC hospitals remain operational and there is no impact on patient care. There are no cancellations to any patient procedures, surgeries, and/or tests that are scheduled for Wednesday.”

In addition, the Animal Rescue League issued a plea for people to donate jugs and cases of water to its Hamilton Avenue facility, where the league doesn’t have the ability to boil enough water for the animals in its care. Water can be dropped off at 6926 Hamilton Ave.

The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, on the other hand, said it is unaffected by the order.

“We are doing fine here at the zoo,” said Tracy Gray, a spokeswoman at the Highland Park facility. “Actually we have the capability to sanitize our water in the aquarium obviously for the different water needs of our exotic marine life, and the sanitized or clean water is also available for any of our animals that we need to provide drinking water for.”

Meanwhile, across town where penguins of a different variety attract a crowd, the Pittsburgh Penguins responded to the advisory by shutting off all public water drinking sources at PPG Paints Arena during the team’s game tonight against the Nashville Predators. Water fountains, soda fountains and ice machines were shut off. Bottled water and soda were still available to fans.

The PWSA also said restaurants, nursing homes, hospitals and businesses in the affected territory should also comply with the advisory by providing bottled water as necessary and not using ice machines or drinking fountains without prior boiling.

The PWSA released a statement shortly before 6 p.m. Tuesday that said: “The temporary advisory is the result of recent disinfection and chlorine testing taken at a single location near the Highland Park drinking water filtration plant. A few tests showed low levels of free chlorine in the treated drinking water. PWSA is coordinating with the Pennsylvania Department of Environment to ensure that all regulatory requirements for disinfection are met immediately.”

The DEP’s order requires PWSA to conduct water tests every four hours at eight locations around the Highland Park reservoirs, filtration and treatment plant, and pump station, until the testing shows acceptable disinfectant levels. The DEP can assess a civil penalty of up to $5,000 a day for violations of the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act.

“We want to see this (boiling requirement) end as soon as possible,’ said Will Pickering, a PWSA spokesman. “We need to produce testing that meets the standards and will be doing those tests tonight and tomorrow.”

Timothy McNulty, Mayor Bill Peduto’s spokesman, termed the advisory a “precautionary and technical move,” and said the mayor was briefed on the DEP boil water order by the PWSA director and board chairman on “their efforts to fix this technical issue.”

“It’s very disappointing and frustrating, but they’ll work as hard as they can to comply with the state’s orders,” Mr. McNulty said of PWSA. “We understand the inconvenience this is going to be for many.”

Mr. McNulty said that “there are no danger levels that have been discovered yet. We hope people can just be patient with PWSA.” He said the authority would “try to get it resolved as soon as possible.”

City Councilman Dan Gilman of Squirrel Hill, whose district includes Shadyside, North Oakland and part of Squirrel Hill, said he’s been flooded with questions from constituents and doesn’t blame them for being “fearful.”

“It certainly has created a very serious panic, and I’m not sure that the panic is needed. But that’s not the fault of PWSA,” he said. “PWSA should always err on the side of providing information to the public.

“Any time there’s a boil-water alert, it’s obviously concerning. I’ve been told [by PWSA] that this is overly, abundantly cautious” and that “there’s no known threat to the public.”

Mr. Pickering, issued a statement saying the temporary advisory is “the result of recent disinfection and chlorine testing taken at a single location near the Highland Park drinking water filtration plant. A few tests showed low levels of free chlorine in the treated drinking water. PWSA is coordinating with the Pennsylvania Department of Environment to ensure that all regulatory requirements for disinfection are met immediately.”

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