After complaints Friday from East End neighborhood residents and building owners about a strong sulfur smell in their drinking water, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority began flushing fire hydrants to bring fresh water into the system.
The city said the sulfur smell was not harmful and was the result of a temporary shutdown of the treatment plant earlier this week for about six hours. For reasons that the city is still exploring, that affected the portion of its distribution system, known as Highland 1, that serves the East End.
The city received 10 complaints from residents from Swisshelm Park, North Point Breeze and Squirrel Hill starting Friday morning that the water they were brushing their teeth with or showering in smelled like sulfur.
But many more residents in at least one of those neighborhoods, Swisshelm Park, posted complaints to a neighborhood Facebook page, and said they were contacting their city council representatives. The Facebook page charted the spread of the sulfur smell from their neighborhood, north to where some neighborhood children attended school at St. Bedes’ Parish school, where the water there also smelled strongly of sulfur.
Bob Weimar, the PWSA’s interim director of engineering and construction, said this is an example of a problem “that looks worse than it is.”
The sulfur smell is the result of minute amounts of hydrogen sulfide in the water that are not harmful, he said, based on testing the city has already done.
“It’s really an aesthetics issue,” he said, but one the city is working to eliminate, he said. “It is not a health issue.”
Mr. Weimar said plant workers noticed a slight sulfur smell at the treatment plant Friday, but it probably smells worse in homes because people tend to use water in the home at a higher temperature than at the plant, which exacerbates the smell.
The sulfur smell was the result of a decision earlier this week to do some repairs at the treatment plant, which required shutting it down for about six hours.
That does not mean water is not treated, but it did mean the city would draw more water that had already been treated from its water basins without refilling the basins during those six hours.
The city is not sure exactly why the sulfur smell was so strong, but Mr. Weimar said a working theory is that because the water basins were drawn down lower than normal, that sediments at the bottom were stirred up more than they are typically, which pushed more hydrogen sulfide into the water that went into the system.
To counter that, the city began flushing fire hydrants in East End neighborhoods on Friday, and will continue to do so until the smell is gone.
Mr. Weimar said the city is first concentrating on “dead ends” where other sediments and hydrogen sulfide can accumulate, to try to get rid of the smell as quickly as possible.
That sediment accumulation can be seen at those hydrants, which can run brown for awhile after they are opened, but eventually turn clearer.
Mr. Weimar said one longer term solution to the sulfur smell problem is that the city has to restore the basins, which it has not done in about 25 years. Last year the city restored its filter system for the first time in 28 years.
But for now, he said: “We’re expecting that flushing for a couple of days in remote areas of the system will take care of it.”
Sean D. Hamill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2579 or Twitter: @SeanDHamill.