Boil advisory lifted for 100,000 customers; City Council wants investigations into PWSA

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority on Thursday lifted a flush-and-boil water advisory that impacted approximately 100,000 customers in 20 neighborhoods.

City officials said there's no trace of bacteria in the city's water, even though some tests late Tuesday showed there wasn't enough chlorine in water treated at one plant.

The state Department of Environmental Protection insisted on the boil-water advisory based on samples from the city's Highland Park reservoirs.

"There never was any confirmation of contamination in city water," Kevin Acklin, the mayor's chief of staff, said Thursday.

The city added chlorine and drained reservoir water out of its system to satisfy the DEP, and is investigating the cause of the failed tests.

Mayor Bill Peduto said Pennsylvania's chlorination standards are higher than federal standards, and in "another state, our water would have been safe, and we wouldn't have had to take these precautionary measures."

Peduto also emphasized that customers were never in danger.

"At no time was there ever any contamination found. At no time was there water that they were drinking anything but above federal levels," Peduto said.

City officials as well as Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority director Bernard Lindstrom apologized for the "massive inconvenience."

"I know without a doubt it created many hardships that I will never  hear about or know, and it created uncertainty in many peoples minds," Lindstrom said.

The advisory was issued Tuesday night after testing near the Highland Park drinking water filtration plant showed low levels of free chlorine in the drinking water. In response, the Highland Park reservoir was shut off from the rest of the system and PWSA performed test readings every four hours until the advisory was lifted.

The PWSA said it was coordinating with the DEP  to ensure disinfection requirements are met immediately. PWSA executive director Bernard Lindstrom said at a news conference Wednesday that he believed the problem stemmed from an error in reading the chlorine levels, issues with the machine used or, most likely, a mechanical problem at the reservoir.

Peduto stressed Wednesday that there is no evidence of bacteria, but there was a full effort to alleviate any fears. He said he was confident that there would be no evidence of bacteria.

“I have 100 percent certainty that as we do this report that we won't find any traces of any type of giardia or other bacteria and that our chlorine levels will be safe," Peduto said.

City Council seeks possible ramifications against the PWSA:   

Channel 11's Rick Earle reported Wednesday that City Council members sent a letter to the state attorney general and the auditor general asking for an investigation.

Thursday, City Council issued a news release that said all council members are "collectively requesting an audit" by the Pennsylvania auditor general and attorney general "regarding PWSA's contract with Veolia, Inc., outside contractors, PWSA's procurement process and all other areas under their respective jurisdiction."

In the news release, council members said, "Other areas that have prompted this level of scrutiny include, but is not limited to, the high lead levels in the water supplied to the residents of the City of Pittsburgh and the ongoing billing issues that have plagued the City of Pittsburgh residents for over two years."

Councilmembers are collaborating with Peduto and City Controller Michael Lamb to resolve the issues with PWSA.

City Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith told Channel 11 on Wednesday she wants an investigation into the PWSA, claiming the water issue might have surfaced last week. However, PWSA officials said they just leaned about the chlorine issue earlier this week.

"Sunday, we did take some readings. It wasn't until Monday or Tuesday that we became aware of the scope of the issue, and were working with the DEP to issue the advisory," said Gina Cyprych, of the PWSA.

Kail-Smith said this problem is just the latest in a long line of PWSA disasters, all documented by Target 11 over the last two years, from problems with electronic meters to billing issues and high lead levels.

"The issues are just insurmountable at this point, and this time, we have to do something to ensure safe drinking water for our residents," Kail-Smith said. "This is our water. ... If anything, we should have learned from Flint, Michigan, to make sure we are very aggressive in pursuing changes at PWSA."

Councilman Corey O'Conner said the PWSA dropped the ball after learning about the problem. He said some customers who weren't in the advisory area still received robocalls from PWSA. O'Conner also said Hazelwood -- which is on the advisory -- wasn't added to the list until several hours later.

"There's no Hazelwood on the original list, so you have hours of people in that neighborhood possibly drinking that water that have no idea of what's going on," O'Conner said.

Councilman Dan Gilman is also critical of the PWSA for its initial response, claiming the utility failed to get accurate information out in a timely matter. Gilman also fired back at the state DEP, accusing the department of not cooperating with PWSA to resolve the issue.

"I am very disappointed with the DEP and what feels to me as their lack of partnership and support and rather adversarial role here," Gilman said.

Councilwoman Darlene Harris is calling on the PWSA to give customers refunds because of the advisory, and the mayor said he welcomes an independent review of the PWSA.

What happens now that the advisory is lifted?

Culligan of Pittsburgh is advising its customers to contact the company at 412-324-1065 to schedule servicing of water-treatment equipment. The company recommends the continued boiling of water until the servicing takes place.

Why did the DEP issue the advisory?   

The Allegheny County Health Department said the DEP order referenced disinfection levels for giardia in the water, but there was no indication that giardia has been detected.

Giardia is a parasite that can cause intestinal symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating and diarrhea. The health department said it can take seven to 10 days for people to develop symptoms after exposure.

There were no reports of any water-related illnesses, Pittsburgh Department of Public Safety director Wendell Hissrich said Wednesday evening.

[DEP Field Order]

The PWSA said the advisory affected approximately 100,000 customers

in more than 20 neighborhoods.

Affected customers were notified via robocalls, according to the PWSA. Fifteen facilities served as water-distribution centers and were equipped with 2,500-gallon water buffalo tanks with clean, drinkable water.

What were customers under the advisory instructed to do?  

Customers within the affected areas were told to flush their tap for one minute or longer, then boil water for one minute and let it cool before consumption. That includes water for drinking, making ice, washing dishes, brushing teeth and food preparation.

Customers were told to shower, wash their hands  and wash their clothes as normal.

The PWSA said restaurants, schools, nursing homes, hospitals and businesses in the affected territory needed to provide bottled water as necessary. The PWSA also advised operators not to utilize public water sources, including ice machines and drinking fountains, without prior boiling.

[Boil water advisory FAQs from the Allegheny County Health Department]

Effect on customers, schools and businesses:   

As a result of the advisory, Pittsburgh Public Schools announced the closure Wednesday of 22 schools and two early childhood centers.

Pittsburgh Public Schools resumed normal operations Thursday. School leaders said Wednesday's closures gave the district time to properly cover water fountains, prepare food services and provide bottled water so schools are ready to open.

The Urban Academy of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School was also closed Wednesday because of the water advisory.

The Pittsburgh Penguins responded to the water advisory by shutting off all public water drinking sources during Tuesday's Penguins game at PPG Paints Arena. That included all water fountains, soda fountains and ice machines. Bottled water and soda remained available.

UPMC officials told Channel 11 News that the advisory had no effect on patient care at their hospitals.

Some businesses -- especially restaurants and coffee shops -- were affected, however.

Employees at New Amsterdam in Lawrenceville said they passed along news of the advisory to their customers as soon as they heard about it.

"This is hindering business. Not only just affecting people's health, but also people's ability to just go out and dine,” said Darryl Poellnitz, a bartender at New Amsterdam.

Lindsay Clark, a barista at 4121 Main in Bloomfield, said she expected business to be slower because espresso is not being served.

“As a safety precaution, we’re only serving pour-over coffee and teas that are prepared with bottled water,” Clark said.

In response to the criticism against the DEP, the department issued the following statement Wednesday.

"DEP has been in contact with PWSA and have outlined the steps that need to be taken in order to demonstrate the water in the distribution network is safe to consume and the BWA can be lifted. PWSA will be submitting a plan outlining how those steps will be achieved.  
 
"The field order calling for a BWA was not issued lightly. Under the Safe Drinking Water regulations, PWSA had an independent obligation to issue a Tier 1 public notice to all consumers of the water within 24 hours of its discovery of the breakdown in treatment evidenced by PWSA’s sampling data. 
 
"DEP understands the impact that a boil water advisory can have on homeowners and businesses. We are working expeditiously with PWSA to ensure this is resolved and the drinking water is safe. DEP issued the field order because of a breakdown in treatment -- specifically a breakdown in disinfection treatment. Surface water systems are required to meet very specific inactivation requirements that include: (1) a sufficient amount (or concentration) of disinfectant, and (2) a sufficient amount of contact time.  Disinfectants do not inactivate or kill pathogens immediately.  Rather, the disinfectant needs to remain in the water for a specific amount of time prior to the first customer to ensure sufficient inactivation of pathogens."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Stay with Channel 11 News and WPXI.com for continuing coverage.