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Prison aware of Legionella in water

| Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016, 10:00 p.m.
SCI Pittsburgh
SCI Pittsburgh

Three months before SCI-Pittsburgh's medical director died from what was apparently Legionnaires' disease, corrections officials learned the North Side prison had a Legionella problem, according to heavily redacted records the Department of Corrections released in response to a Tribune-Review Right-to-Know request.

A May 12 report on a May 4 sample showed that the No. 1 water cooling tower, which served the prison's medical department, had a concentration of 430 colony forming units per milliliter of Legionella bacteria.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends that any water cooling that has 100 cfu/ml or more undergo a cleaning and biocide treatment.

People can contract Legionnaires' disease by inhaling water droplets tainted by the bacteria. It often happens while taking a shower or drinking from a water fountain.

An Aug. 12 report said the cooling tower was cleaned, but an email Sept. 1 by Robert McSurdy, chief of the department's safety and environmental protection division, contradicts that.

“The original report of the cooling tower being drained and cleaned was inaccurate,” McSurdy wrote. “Therefore, a super chlorination will occur to eliminate the Legionella bacteria growth in the cooling tower.”

The department has no comment on the details revealed in the documents, spokeswoman Amy Worden said.

Dr. Joseph Mollura, 60, of Elizabeth Township died Aug. 8 from complications related to pneumonia.

The Mollura family has hired lawyer Neil Rosen and referred all questions to him.

“I've been retained to investigate the method by which they were taking care of the problem, which they didn't do,” he said.

So far, the Department of Corrections, Allegheny County Health Department and state health department haven't released their investigations to the family, but there's no doubt Mollura contracted the disease at the prison, he said.

“The fact is that the disease was there and not at any other place where he was,” Rosen said.

Correct Care Solutions of Nashville operates the prison's medical department. Mollura worked for the company. A company spokesman declined comment. A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association couldn't be reached for comment.

Mollura's death triggered a series of emails among prison officials and apparently prompted two staff members to approach the Allegheny County Health Department so they could be tested for Legionella, according to the agency's documents.

“Joseph Mollura, CCS Medical Director at SCI Pittsburgh, recently died on vacation in Florida from complications of Legionella pneumonia,” Dr. Paul Noel, chief of Clinical Services, said in an email dated Aug. 15.

“We notified Bob McSurdy, who just shared with me that there have been recent problems with Legionella in the cooling towers of the medical department at SCI Pittsburgh. They have been changing the treatments and monitoring the results.

“The most recent sample was satisfactory. He ordered an immediate sample test and will provide the results when it comes back.”

McSurdy is chief of the department's safety and environmental protection division. The sample taken Aug. 16, the day after the email, showed that cooling tower No. 1 had bacteria concentrations at 100 cfu/ml.

The study also reported that the bacteria in the tower belonged to the variant that most commonly causes Legionnaires' infections.

Several SCI-Pittsburgh employees who contacted the Trib after the Sept. 1 announcement said they had been kept in the dark about the problem until shortly before the department went public. The prison gave bottled water to employees and inmates as a precaution. The same day, a corrections department spokeswoman told the Trib that no employees or inmates had been diagnosed with Legionnaire's disease.

None of the documents say who was supposed to have made sure the tower was cleaned and disinfected or what actions corrections officials took in response to that lapse.

Brian Bowling is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1218 or

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