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Wilkinsburg-Penn Joint Water Authority faces 'significant fine'

| Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014, 4:44 p.m.

The state Department of Environmental Protection likely will impose a “significant fine” on the Wilkinsburg-Penn Joint Water Authority because it failed to issue a boil-water notice during a 19-day period in November when its water did not meet disinfection standards, a DEP spokesman said.

The authority's failure to notify the DEP, Allegheny County Health Department or its 40,000 customers of the necessity for boiling water between Nov. 7 and 25 as a precaution to kill any disease-causing organisms was a “major oversight,” DEP spokesman John Poister said.

“There will likely be a significant fine. We consider this a serious breach,” Poister said. “You have a trust with your customers that when they turn on their water, they're not going to get sick. And when you break that trust, it's serious.”

Though an authority official said the public never was in danger, water samples taken in November showed chlorine concentrations were between 0.15 and 0.19 milligrams per liter, which fell shy of the 0.2 reading required by the state.

All 160 samples tested negative for bacteria, viruses or parasites, said Mark Lerch, director of supply for the water authority.

“We haven't heard of anyone suffering from the symptoms,” he said. “There was still chlorine in the system; we just didn't meet that minimum treatment technique.”

Allegheny County health officials discovered the lower chlorine levels while doing routine testing of November water samples on Dec. 24. A spokesman for the health department was not immediately available for an interview.

Authority officials responded to the county discovery by raising the chlorine level in the water and setting alarm monitors so water plant operators will be alerted immediately if the disinfectant level falls again, Lerch said.

“The way it's supposed to work is that when the chlorine residual drops below the required level for longer than four hours, if we catch it, we're supposed to notify the county within an hour and the public within 24 hours,” Lerch said.

He attributed the issue to human error.

“We have equipment monitoring throughout the system, and we'd inadvertently set it to a range lower than 0.2 milligrams per liter,” Lerch said.

The authority used its “rapid-response system” this week to call about 95 percent of its customers with a recorded message about the November treatment breakdown, Lerch said. It also posted notices in local libraries and borough buildings, Lerch said.

If DEP officials follow through with the fine, Wilkinsburg-Penn will become the second authority in the region to be penalized because of a public-notification issue.

Last month, the DEP fined the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County $5,000 because it did not initially publicize all of the health risks involved with the potential discharge of bacteria into its water supply.

Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8671, or cforeman@tribweb.com. Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or pvarine@tribweb.com.

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