The Erie County Water Authority knew by 3 a.m. Thursday that a huge water main break may have exposed more than 100,000 residents to contaminated water, but no public advisory was sent for at least three more hours.
By the time an advisory was issued, many people in Amherst and other parts northern Erie County had brushed their teeth and drank tap water that health officials were warning should have been boiled for at least a minute.
The person who had the public relations contract for the water authority was in Cleveland, attending the National Republican Convention: Michael Caputo.
He said an account executive for his PR firm is dedicated solely to the Water Authority account.
“He sent out the press release on the boiled water advisory within an hour of being notified,” Caputo said of Sean Dwyer, the account executive.
Robert Lichtenthal, the ECWA deputy director who has been dealing with the crisis since Wednesday evening, said he alerted the Caputo’s PR firm about the water main break Tuesday evening. It wasn’t until 3 to 3:30 a.m. that the water authority began reviewing its data on water flow and pressure.
Dwyer issued a news release to the media at 6 a.m., which was posted the authority website after 7 a.m. and finally sent out via social media after 8 a.m.
In consultation with the Health Department, Lichetenthal said, the authority decided it was necessary to issue the boiled water advisory, which would remain in effect for at least 18 hours as the water testing continues. That later was changed to two to three days.
Lichtenthal said the authority “moved the information along” to Zeppelin Communications, Caputo’s public relations firm. The firm is paid a maximum cap of $5,000 a month for work it does on behalf of the water authority.
Caputo and Lichtenthal also said that under New York State Law, the authority has up to 24 hours to issue such a notice.
Caputo did not suggest, however, that this was a reasonable time frame.
“Every minute that passes after we find out is minute too long,” he said.
The ECWA website was overwhelmed by traffic after the water main break occurred at 8:30 p.m., resulting in low water pressure for residents of Amherst and parts of Clarence, Newstead and Lancaster. It remained slow Thursday morning.
County Executive Mark Poloncarz sent his first tweets about the boiled water advisory shortly after 7 a.m., nearly an hour ahead of the water authority on social media.
Though the water authority issued the health advisory out of a sense of prudence and caution, Caputo said the risk of someone’s becoming sick from contaminated water appears “remote.”
Zeppelin Communications won a three-year public relations contract with the water authority last fall.
Caputo said the issuance of a boiled water advisory is very rare. It last occurred a decade ago after an ice storm in Amherst led to concerns.
He also said the water authority now has had a presence on Twitter and Facebook for the past two months because of his firm’s work, and that the firm and the ECWA has been working together to determine better ways of issuing health advisories directly to customers. Options include emails and robocalls, he said.
“Even when we put that in place,” he said, “we are likely not to use that for another decade.”