Westmoreland residents must boil water still

County advisory inconveniences ; three more days ahead

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Three school districts closed Friday. A group of nursing homes boiled water to prepare food. A popular restaurant served meals on paper plates. Shelves typically stocked with fresh vegetables at Giant Eagle were bare while mist was turned off. And a mother hoping to make a good first impression on her son's girlfriend's parents had to rethink dinner.

An advisory to boil water, now expected to extend into Tuesday, has touched thousands across Westmoreland County.

The notice from the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County is affecting about 50,000 of its customers -- 100,000 to 120,000 people -- most north of Route 30.

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 are under the alert, among others. McKeesport is not affected.

Water used for drinking, making ice, brushing teeth, washing dishes and preparing food should be boiled for a minute then cooled, the authority advised.

That advisory inconvenienced many, including Kathy Miller, 53, of Penn Township, who thought of scrapping plans for homemade pizza and a vegetable tray for that special meal.

"I might be calling and ordering in," she said.

The boil-water alert was issued as a precaution after water collected Wednesday at the George R. Sweeney Water Treatment Plant revealed a small depression in part of the filter, which could allow untreated water to bypass the filtration barrier, municipal authority officials at its New Stanton headquarters said Friday.

"We think the breach occurred as the filter was being tested," authority general manager Chris Kerr said.

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection spokesman John Poister said small microorganisms, algae and other things they don't normally see were found in the water.

Mr. Kerr said they haven't determined any health risks or found any abnormalities with the testing either before or after the filter has been taken out of service.

"But the possibility exists because there was a break in the filter that that could have happened, but no test results have indicated that," he said.

An authority spokeswoman said test results do not indicate the water was contaminated.

On Thursday, the authority began increasing the chlorine dosage and flushing the system. If it passes two bacterial tests this weekend, the notice will be lifted.

Westmoreland County Commissioner Tyler Courtney praised the authority for its efforts to notify the public and said he approved of the aggressive precautionary measures.

"They've done an excellent job of protecting the people and running a smooth operation," Mr. Courtney said. "I would ask that people adhere to what they're recommending just to make sure they're protecting themselves."

There was some confusion Friday, however, about which municipalities were under the boil advisory.

In Hempfield, school superintendent Andrew J. Leopold called the authority today to ask if the West Hempfield schools, which appeared to be in the advisory area but were not named, were affected. He said he did not get a definitive answer initially, but was notified later in the morning that they should indeed take precautions.

The authority's website, www.mawc.org, also has been down periodically, exacerbating the situation.

And advisory notices went out to whole communities, and can't be sent street-by-street, even if only parts were affected, according to the authority.

Mr. Kerr said he thought the authority was "proactive" and made a good effort in getting thousands of calls out over six hours Thursday. But, he added, the authority isn't "completely satisfied with the results."

The authority attempted to notify 50,000 customers and was able to reach 45,000, he said.

Excela Health, headquartered in Greensburg and which has operations across Westmoreland County, was conducting "business as usual" Friday while taking precautions, spokeswoman Robin Jennings said. Some physician practices and outpatient facilities are in affected areas.

Ms. Jennings said appropriate steps are being taken to ensure that surgical instruments are properly sterilized.

"Our OR's are completely prepared for this situation, and they were prepared as of the start of business today," Ms. Jennings said. "And once the advisory has been lifted we will conduct preventive maintenance in these areas and flush the lines ourselves."

Kiski Area, Apollo-Ridge and Leechburg Area schools districts closed Friday. Penn-Trafford School District suggested students bring their own water bottles, because fountains there were turned off.

The campus of Penn State Greater Allegheny, which straddles White Oak and McKeesport and has about 800 students, also is under the advisory.

Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com. Jonathan D. Silver: jsilver@post-gazette.com. Lexi Belculfine contributed. First Published October 25, 2013 6:54 AM

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