Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz is unapologetic about the county Health Department issuing an advisory to boil water as a result of a major water main break Wednesday night that inconvenienced nearly 210,000 people. Moreover, he’s accusing the Erie County Water Authority of passing the buck to cover what he considers to be the agency’s “incompetence.”
“They’re trying to make me out to be the bad guy when their incompetence in responding is truly what we should be talking about,” he said Tuesday.
After enduring heavy criticism last week for not being more proactive in reaching out to the public about the possibility of water contamination, the authority sent out robocalls Monday to 96,000 households for which it had phone numbers. The calls invited affected customers to participate in a teleconference explaining the authority’s actions related to the water main break.
Authority spokesman Michael Caputo said 25,000 customers listened to Chairman Earl Jann’s explanation and more than 200 submitted questions.
As part of that telecall, Jann said the public health advisory recommended by the county was unnecessary and not in keeping with the opinion of the Water Authority’s own experts and engineers. He also said it was the county administration and leadership that pushed the boil water notice on the authority, which is an independent, state agency.
Poloncarz responded Tuesday that the county had great difficulty reaching Water Authority officials the night of the water main break because its phone lines and website were down. Even when authority officials were reached, staffers did not yet have the data to determine whether households were at risk for contaminated water, he said.
“The most important thing that came out of it is, you have to err on the side of caution,” he said. “If you don’t know the answer to the question, you have to tell the public ... There never was evidence to show us the water was contaminated. The problem was, you don’t know that until you conduct the water test.”
Poloncarz said he recommended the boil water advisory after extensive, consensus-driven discussions with representatives from the Health Department, Office of Emergency Services, emergency managers in affected towns and in consultation with Water Authority engineers.
Jann said the Water Authority was not included in conference call discussions about how to proceed.
Robert Lichtenthal, the authority’s deputy director, who was on the front lines dealing with the crisis Wednesday and Thursday, said last week that the Health Department and Water Authority decided a boil water advisory was warranted after the agency reviewed its water pressure data around 3 a.m. Thursday.
Poloncarz, a Democrat, criticized the Republican-controlled authority for what he said is the politicization of a major agency crisis.
“They’re trying to push their incompetence on me,” he said, adding, “ECWA was trying to avoid even admitting some areas lost all water. This is just politics. It’s part of the entire local GOP narrative.”
In response to Poloncarz’s political accusations, Jann sent The News a statement saying, “The 240 Western New Yorkers of the Water Authority have faithfully delivered pure water to your tap and the smallest bill to your mailbox for 63 years without stooping to Poloncarz-style name calling. We won’t start now.”