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Pittsburgh water boil advisory lifted for PWSA customers

Natasha Lindstrom
ptrboilorder04020217
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Phil Wasler, Bill Johnston and Peter Kope, all of Highland Park, collect potable water from Fire Station 8 in East Liberty, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017.

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority on Thursday lifted the flush and boil water advisory that affected about 100,000 customers for nearly two days.

“First of all, let me apologize to all of our residents in the city of Pittsburgh for this massive inconvenience,” PWSA interim Executive Director Bernard R. Lindstrom said. “I know that without a doubt, it created probably many hardships that I will never hear about nor know, and it created uncertainty in many people’s minds that may have kept many up at night.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto emphasized repeatedly the order was a “precautionary measure” triggered by deficiencies in meeting standards under Pennsylvania’s Safe Drinking Water Act, which has more stringent requirements than federal rules.

“There was never a time there was bacteria,” Peduto said. “At no time was the public in danger, but as a regulator, the (state) Department of Environmental Protection must take actions when something in the system does not work properly.”

By lifting the order at 11:45 a.m., officials from DEP confirmed that drinking water requirements were achieved and there was no risk to the water supply serving the affected central and eastern sections of the city.

“We know that the chlorine system is working properly,” said Bob Weimar, PWSA’s interim director of engineering.

Trouble began Sunday when PWSA received notice of “erratic” chlorine readings recorded last month at a cholometer outside the filtration plant servicing the Highland Park Reservoir, which supplies water to 60 percent of the city. PWSA adds chlorine as a disinfectant to kill pathogens that might enter the system.

The primary reason for Tuesday afternoon’s order, however, was not the “erratic” reading that since has been corrected but rather a technical glitch, PWSA officials clarified Wednesday.

“That’s what caused them to look,” said Weimar, “but that really isn’t the issue.”

Regulators issued the boil order Tuesday because they flagged a bigger problem: time that water at the plant was exposed to chlorine.

“The issue in (state regulators’) minds was you need to provide a certain amount of protection — they call it a log removal — which is the amount of chlorine you have in the water and the amount of time the water is exposed to it before a customer drinks it,” Weimar said.

PWSA had thought it was taking the treated water one to two hours to get to customers, according to Weimar, but testing at DEP’s request showed it was taking only 40 to 55 minutes. That placed PWSA about 25 percent below state standards for chlorine contact periods, Weimar said.

Late Wednesday night, PWSA provided DEP with documentation and data to prove the authority achieved compliance. Officials from the city, PWSA and DEP met Thursday morning to discuss the latest analysis.

“We have a job to prove that our system is safe, and we did so,” Weimar said.

The authority still must make some changes to the system, including by addressing “five or six points (of pipeline) on the cusp of not meeting that log removal” standard, Weimar said.

The authority also plans to renegotiate its years-old permit with the state, which officials say includes outdated perimeters based on water flow changes in recent years.

In response to the two-day crisis, Pittsburgh Councilwoman Theresa Smith announced Thursday that all council members are requesting an audit by Auditor General Eugene DePasquale and “a thorough investigation” by Attorney General Josh Shapiro. They want the overseers to examine PWSA’s procurement process and outside contractors, and in particular a contract with Boston-based Veolia Inc. — the private vendor who ran PWSA’s utility operations between July 2012 and December 2015.

Peduto said he welcomes an audit and review by both agencies.

Kevin Acklin, chief of staff to Peduto, pointed out the city has a lawsuit pending against Veolia Inc . Acklin said their contract, which rewarded savings, may have given the private vendor incentive to invest less than they should have into PWSA infrastructure.

PWSA still has several pressing challenges to confront, including lead-level issues stemming from the city’s glut of old housing; raw sewage runoffs into local waterways during storms and “well over a decade of disinvestment,” Peduto said. The authority’s debt has ballooned to almost $1 billion, with debt payments eating up almost 50 cents of every $1 spent by customers.

Lindstrom took the authority’s helm in September, after former director Jim Good resigned in March amid mounting customer complaints about overbilling and poor customer service.

“Our morale and our capabilities are probably at an all-time low,” Lindstrom said. “That doesn’t mean we’re not continuing to try to improve, and it’s my job as the leader of the organization to do that, and we have a plan.”

Peduto said the city is ready to put out a Request for Proposals to generate professional guidance and suggestions for models to bring PWSA “into the 21st century.” The mayor suggested revenue-generating options could include the likes of expanding water delivery into areas outside the city.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or [email protected]

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