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Allegheny River overflow's effect on water quality at issue in triathlon

Aaron Aupperlee
| Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014, 10:42 p.m.
Athletes make their way to the edge of the river as they complete the swimming leg of the 17th annual Pittsburgh Triathlon & Adventure Race on Sunday, Aug. 3, 2014, along Pittsburgh's North Shore.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Athletes make their way to the edge of the river as they complete the swimming leg of the 17th annual Pittsburgh Triathlon & Adventure Race on Sunday, Aug. 3, 2014, along Pittsburgh's North Shore.

Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority and triathlon officials met on Wednesday to discuss concern and confusion over the water quality of the Allegheny River when swimmers jumped in for the latest race on Sunday.

John Stephen, founder of Friends of the Riverfront, which organizes the Pittsburgh Triathlon, said race officials met before the start of the swim leg to discuss water quality. Some participants had concerns about the health risks of the water.

Organizers are considering changes for next year's event to better and more clearly inform participants of water quality issues, Stephen said.

A heavy rainstorm swept through the area on Saturday night, prompting the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority, which treats wastewater, to issue a sewage overflow alert. Alcosan officials notified Stephen at 6:15 a.m. Sunday that there were no overflows, he said. The swimming leg started at 6:45 a.m.

“Clearly on Sunday morning, the issue was on everyone's mind. It was tense,” Stephen said. “The real go/no-go decision point was when Alcosan contacted me, as they promised they'd do, that when they inspected outflows upstream, there were no overflows.”

Neil Semmel, the race director from Piranha Sports, a Kirkwood, Del., company hired by Friends of the Riverfront to handle race day operations, declined to comment on issues regarding water quality and said to direct questions to Friends of the Riverfront because it determined to go ahead with the swim.

Water quality studies have detected high levels of bromides, which can cause cancer, in the river, along with pollutants such as acid mine drainage, chemical fertilizers and road salt. Alcosan warns that wastewater overflows can wash storm debris and raw sewage into the water. Bacteria can make people sick if water is swallowed or comes into contact with an open wound, according to the authority's website. Water quality usually does not return to normal for 48 hours after an overflow.

Triathlon organizers changed their water quality policy this year after two years of complaints that Allegheny River water had made participants ill. The triathlon partnered with Platypus LLC, a Squirrel Hill company, and with PWSA to collect water samples before the race and analyze the samples, said Melissa Rubin, an authority spokeswoman.

Samples were collected months before the triathlon and after storms to study how heavy rain affects water quality.

Alcosan performed extra inspections before the race of the wastewater outflows, where combined sewage and stormwater dump into the Allegheny River when the authority's treatment plant is overloaded, said Jeanne Clark, authority spokeswoman.

“There were several precautions in place to try to inform and protect the participants and inform them,” Rubin said. “Friends of the Riverfront gave them as much information as they could to make an informed decision.”

Both Rubin and Stephen stressed it is never 100 percent safe to swim in the river.

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or Staff writer Karen Price contributed to this report.

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