The Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County on Monday afternoon lifted its nearly 4-day-old boil-water advisory for about 50,000 customers, with officials saying two rounds of tests showed that a malfunctioning filter did not cause any contamination.
"All the tests prior to and after the identification of the breakdown in the filter showed that ... no bacterial contamination was ever present in the water," Chris Kerr, the authority's general manager, said at a news conference at the authority's New Stanton offices.
Mr. Kerr said the advisory was necessary to comply with the protocol mandated by the state Department of Environmental Protection, which detected the filter problem in a yearly inspection Wednesday at the George R. Sweeney water treatment plant in Bell. The same plant passed the DEP inspection last year with high marks, he said.
"We've excavated the filter and we're examining it to try and determine exactly what caused the breakdown," Mr. Kerr said, adding that the disruption may have happened during the state inspection.
"We don't know that for certain. ... We're assuming that it may have occurred during that test."
John Poister, a spokesman for the DEP, said Monday afternoon that the department reviewed the tests and advised the water authority to lift the boil order.
"Restaurants can use the water. There should be no problems," Mr. Poister said. "The water's fine."
However, at a virtually empty Panera Bread on Route 30 in North Huntingdon Monday afternoon, manager Jen Berginc said she was waiting for the all-clear from the state Department of Agriculture, which inspects restaurants and grocery stores.
"We're still waiting for the Department of Agriculture to tell us whether we have to flush our lines and change our filters," Ms. Berginc said.
For four days, she's been unable to sell coffee, one of Panera's biggest draws, ice tea and fountain drinks. Instead, she stocked up on bottled water and sodas.
"It's definitely affected business," she said. "People were very understanding. It had the potential to be worse, but it really wasn't that bad."
Samantha Krepps, a spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture, said the department's "food sanitarians" have been visiting or calling affected restaurants since the advisory went up.
Once the order is lifted, restaurants and other businesses can begin using tap water again provided they flush all pipes and faucets, clean and sanitize equipment with water line connections, such as icemakers, and replace any water filters, among other procedures, which can be found at www.eatsafepa.com.
Outside Panera, Michael Ferchak, 64, was killing time, reading a book while a real estate agent showed his house in Irwin. A cup of coffee would have normally been on the table.
Mr. Ferchak's house was affected by the boil order and although he said it wasn't a hardship, it ignited a run on bottled water at the Giant Eagle in the same strip mall and at other stores.
"They were cleaned out," he said. "I saw people loading up backs of SUVs with gallons of water."
At the news conference, Mr. Kerr fielded questions about the nearly 24-hour delay between when the filter problem was discovered and when the advisory went out. He said the incident was the first of its kind in the more than 60-year history of the authority, which has 24 hours by law to notify its customers and was attempting to limit the number of people affected by the advisory. The authority serves about 125,000 residential and commercial accounts, which represents a total population of about 400,000 people.
"The choices we were making were: Do we notify all 400,000 and inconvenience them? Or do we try to minimize it and describe geographically the minimum amount of area that would be affected?" Mr. Kerr said. "We're going to analyze step by step what we've been through for the last four days and certainly my hope is that we'll make adjustments and make it better."
He described the inconvenience of the advisory as "unfortunate" for affected customers, who were mostly in communities north of Route 30, including parts of White Oak in Allegheny County and the Westmoreland County municipalities of Apollo, Delmont, Derry Township, Export, Irwin, Jeannette, Manor, Murrysville, North Huntingdon, Penn Township and Vandergrift.
School districts closed Friday, nursing homes boiled water to cook food and customers couldn't find fresh vegetables because supermarkets had shut off the spray that keeps them from drying out.
"It's certainly something that we're sorry to have seen happen," Mr. Kerr said. "We reacted to it according to the protocol outlined by DEP and with the highest regard for public health and safety, that being predominant in all the action that we took. We wanted to safeguard public health."
Cheryl Bengel of Jeannette was pushing a cart full of water bottles Monday out of Sam's Club in Hempfield, but the water was for a cheerleading event, not to stow away. Having to boil water for a few days, she said, wasn't a big deal.
"In the grand scheme of things, boiling water for a minute to make sure your family is safe didn't take too much time," she said.
Robert Zullo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3909. Lexi Belculfine contributed.
Molly Born: email@example.com or 412-263-1944. Twitter: @borntolede. First Published October 28, 2013 3:06 PM