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Water authority says boil water notice was unnecessary

Last week’s 48-hour boil water notice that affected nearly a quarter million Erie County residents was unnecessary, Erie County Water Authority officials said Monday.

“This one we don’t really believe that a boil water order should have been issued,” said Earl L. Jann, chairman of the Erie County Water Authority. “We think an awful lot of people were upset for no reason.”

Jann’s comments Monday night were in response to a question from a water authority customer who took part in an hourlong “Tele-Town Hall,” held after the authority was criticized for the way it handled communication with the public about the break.

Officials from the water authority and Erie County government, which issued the notice, disagree about the need for people in towns and villages in eastern and northern Erie County to boil their water after the major break Wednesday in the Town of Amherst.

A leak at 8:31 p.m. never caused water pressure to drop below 20 pounds per square inch for more than four hours, which is the threshold for issuing a notice, said Jann.

“The pressure never dropped to that level and certainly never for that long,” he said.

In fact, pressure from the affected station dropped from 101 psi to 58.5 psi and rebounded to over 100 psi in less than three hours after water authority crews identified the source of the leak and shut down two valves, Jann said.

“Due to this rapid pressure recovery, our experts, engineers and water quality experts did not recommend a boil water notice,” he said.

The decision to issue the notice came from Erie County government – a separate entity from the water authority, specifically the county Health Department and County Executive at 3:30 a.m., he said. The water authority was not part of that discussion, Jann said.

“If we had been included, we would have informed them of the rapid pressure recovery we were experiencing,” he said.

But Erie County Health Commissioner Gale R. Burstein said her office has documentation that water pressure did dip below 20 psi. Reports from hospitals and first responders confirmed that some areas had completely lost water pressure, she said.

“Those affected areas did drop below 20 psi,” Burstein said late Monday. “We witnessed that.”

The county is required to follow state sanitary code and consulted with the state Department of Health before issuing the notice, she said.

“They strongly encouraged us to move forward with this,” she said.

In addition, Dolores Funke, the county Health Department’s environmental health director, was at water authority’s control center in Cheektowaga all night and involved in conference calls with the county’s emergency operations center, Burstein said.

Jann also revealed some insight into a possible cause of Wednesday’s break.

“We discovered National Grid had been digging on that specific site and uncovered part of our pipe,” he said. “We suspect that their work may have contributed to the break. We are continuing to investigate the causes.”

He and Paul Whittham, director of water quality, took about 30 questions during the hourlong “Tele-Town Hall,” a conference call that 24,950 of the water authority’s rate payers heard.

One caller, Jennifer, asked what the water authority will do to ensure customers are immediately alerted of major water issues since the authority’s phone lines and website were inundated with queries last week.

Jann told her the water authority annually experiences about 1,100 waterline breaks that don’t require a boil water notice. He also said the water authority has been exploring new methods of communicating with its customers, including a text and email alert system.


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