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Westmoreland water authority signs off on DEP sanctions

Rich Cholodofsky
| Friday, Dec. 13, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County board members agreed on Thursday to accept a state sanction and fine for shortfalls in a boil-water advisory issued to customers in October.

The directors unanimously signed off on a consent decree with the Department of Environmental Protection that acknowledges the authority did not initially disclose all potential health risks associated with a potential discharge of bacteria into the public water supply when a filter malfunctioned at a treatment plant in Bell Township. Subsequent tests showed no danger.

As part of the admission, the authority agreed to pay a $5,000 fine. Resource Development and Management Inc., the authority's private management company, will pay the fine.

“I think the authority staff and management did a good job in an extremely difficult circumstance,” said Chris Kerr, who serves as president of RDM and the authority's manager. “I don't think there was anything we did not disclose to the public that we should have disclosed.”

The DEP sanction, announced last month, involved information that was not included on the authority's website after the advisory was issued. Kerr said the potential health risks were publicized in television and newspaper reports but were not included on a Web posting.

“We agreed to pay the fine because it was the best way to put the issue behind us,” Kerr said.

Board Chairman Randy Roadman said an internal investigation by RDM should be complete in February.

“We're not happy about (the sanction), but we'll deal with it and move on,” Roadman said.

Board member Keith Staso, who has been critical of RDM's response to the advisory, agreed with that assessment.

“We're lucky it was only $5,000 and management has agreed to pay it. I think that's admirable,” Staso said.

The authority issued the boil-water advisory to 50,000 customers on Oct. 24 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 authority, which sells water to 120,000 customers in five counties, said tests before and after the filter failure found no traces of bacteria in the water.

State officials said the precaution was necessary in case algae or dangerous microscopic bacteria had slipped past the malfunctioning filter.

To issue the alert, the authority made automated calls to customers in the affected areas. Still, confusion over just who was affected persisted during the four-day advisory. The authority's website crashed almost immediately after the alert was issued. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter were used sparingly.

Tom Ceraso, the authority's assistant manager, said Thursday an initial review of the utility's website found it could not handle the heavy usage.

The website has since been altered to accommodate up to 50,000 simultaneous viewers in times of emergency, Ceraso said.

Kerr said the authority next month will offer a social media training session for its management team and board members. The seminar will be a “minimal expense” and taught by a social media consultant, according to Kerr.

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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