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State cites, will fine Westmoreland water agency following safety advisory

| Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County has been cited and will be fined for failing to properly inform the public about health and safety risks associated with a boil-water advisory it issued last month.

John Poister, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection, said the water utility, which serves 120,000 customers in five counties, did not meet federal disclosure guidelines when it issued the advisory on Oct. 24.

Poister said that while a citation was issued on Friday, a fine will be imposed at a later date.

“The fine could be well in excess of $1,000,” Poister said.

The advisory extended through four days when a filter failed an inspection at a treatment plant that processes water from Beaver Run Reservoir in the northern section of Westmoreland County.

The initial alert failed to notify the public about what contaminants could have gotten into the water supply and all associated health risks that could have resulted from the infiltration.

“People have to know what it is they should be concerned about,” Poister said.

Authority Manager Chris Kerr said he was given no indication during a three-hour meeting on Friday with DEP officials that a citation would be issued.

Kerr, who serves as president and co-owner of Resource Development and Management Inc., the private consulting company that is paid $1 million a year to run the authority, said the fine could be as high as $5,000.

“RDM is responsible for carrying out the emergency-response plan, so if there is a fine issued, RDM will pay for it,” Kerr said.

Authority board Chairman Randy Roadman could not be reached for comment.

The authority said tests before and after the filter failure found no traces of bacteria in the water.

The DEP told authority officials to issue the boil-water advisory at 4 p.m. Oct. 24 because of a filter failure during a routine inspection of the George R. Sweeney Treatment plant in Bell Township. State officials said the precaution was necessary in case algae or dangerous microscopic bacteria had slipped past the malfunctioning filter.

Three hours later, authority officials issued the advisory through faxes sent to newsrooms of local newspapers and television stations. The advisory only said there was a “potential deficiency of the filtration barrier.”

A day later, at a news conference, authority officials disclosed the potential contaminant in the algae and referred questions about health risks to the state Department of Health.

DEP officials praised the authority for how it handled technical aspects related to flushing water pipes to ensure no contaminants remained in the system.

The citation does not address the authority's failure to be specific about the area covered by the advisory.

Officials said the authority met state guidelines that required telephone notification to customers to be made within 24 hours. Authority personnel said notification was completed in less than seven hours, although about 12 percent of the 50,000 customers in the affected area were not contacted.

Meanwhile, heavy usage crashed the authority's website. Social media was not used the first day of the advisory and only sparingly later.

The authority board directed RDM to investigate its own performance.

Kerr said the authority has outlined changes to its public-response plan, including upgrading its website and incorporating social media.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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