The water main on Penn Avenue in Lawrenceville broke late on a Thursday evening in January.
By 8 a.m. a crew had sliced open the street in the freezing cold, cutting through a foot of pavement, then a layer of paving blocks, down through gravel and dirt, to where the six-inch line lay broken underground.
In the process of fixing it, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority issued a boil water advisory.
A boil water advisory is a big deal. It essentially tells customers their water is not safe to drink, which is a major inconvenience. Under an advisory, residents are told to run their taps for one minute before boiling it vigorously for another minute in order to drink it, cook with it, or otherwise consume it.
PWSA has issued four boil water advisories in the last 13 months. In January 2017, the authority told 100,000 customers to boil their water because low chlorine levels meant there was a chance giardia could live in the water; in August, officials were concerned the water supply for roughly 18,000 homes could be contaminated by bird and animal droppings that might have slipped through an aged reservoir cover. A December water main break on Centre Avenue caused low pressure and prompted a boil water advisory for 7,000 households in the East End just weeks before a main break on Penn Avenue found 700 households firing up their stovetops in January of 2018.
And that’s just PWSA. Pennsylvania American Water issued a boil water advisory for 100,000 customers in November 2017 because high turbidity, or cloudiness, meant harmful bacteria could be in the water. This month, water main breaks in Aspinwall have twice resulted in boil water advisories.
The language surrounding these orders often involved words like “concern” and “precaution,” which made them sound optional, but it wasn’t clear whether authorities really had any choice in the matter.
How A Boil Water Advisory Works
Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) enforces rules to make sure local water suppliers across the state achieve their mission: to provide safe, clean drinking water. While DEP can issue a boil water advisory, it’s typically the local authority that makes the call, said DEP Spokesperson Neil Shader.
“Usually what you’re talking about is some type of bacteria,” said Shader. “Something that people probably would have heard of would be something like E.coli...microscopic little things that would basically make someone sick.”
Boiling the water kills off those microscopic bacteria. If there were a contaminant in the water that boiling would not eliminate, such as a chemical contamination, there are two other kinds of advisories: Do Not Drink orders, and Do Not Use orders.
Shader said he couldn’t think of an example of a Do Not Drink or Do Not Use order in Pennsylvania.
The significant bits of state code and agency guidance that govern boil water advisories can be found here and here, but there are basically two main reasons to issue a boil water advisory: evidence and concern.
First, evidence. To ensure people get clean water, DEP requires all sorts of sampling: every few minutes, every few hours, and so on, water suppliers check to make sure the water passes muster. As they monitor, they might see evidence of harmful bacteria in the water. In order to protect customers, the supplier will issue a boil water advisory while it works to resolve the issue.
The second trigger is concern. There are countless moving parts in a water distribution system. If a pump dies, if a pipe breaks, it’s possible harmful bacteria could enter the water, because those sorts of problems can create low pressure. And when there’s low pressure, groundwater or wastewater could be sucked back into the water supply and contaminate it. The authority will issue a boil water advisory as a precaution, resolve the immediate problem, and then run a lot of tests to assure itself and its customers that the water is safe.
Health Concerns And State Oversight
Issuing a boil water advisory is not a decision PWSA takes lightly, but ultimately, a water agency is a public health provider, said Interim Executive Director Bob Weimar.
“And the inconvenience that people experience is relatively minor compared to the potential exposure that you could have,” he said.
In fact, Weimar said boil water advisories are sort of positive: they tell people their water provider is vigilant; they’re paying attention and protecting their customers. That wasn’t always the case in Pittsburgh, he said.
“We're trying to be far more rigorous in our expectations than we were previously,” he said. “They had many breaks here [where PWSA never notified] the customers. They were never told that they needed to boil water because it was perceived as an unacceptable outcome.”
However, in some instances in Pennsylvania, issuing a boil water advisory was unavoidable. In the 1980s a spate of boil water advisories resulted from stark evidence of contamination, said former DEP Secretary David Hess. It wasn’t pretty.
“You know, we had regular outbreaks of giardiasis,” he said, referring to a bowel ailment caused by a microscopic parasite.
“That really affected hundreds and thousands of people. We led the country in waterborne disease outbreaks at one point,” he said. “That’s why in those early days, those kinds of things were tracked very carefully.”
Pennsylvania’s instances of waterborne disease are low these days, said Hess. But I wanted to know how common boil water advisories are, and how Pittsburgh’s recent history compares. DEP spokesperson Shader said he doesn’t know.
“We do not keep a running tally of the boil water advisories that have been issued across the state,” he said.
That was news to Hess, who worked at the agency’s senior levels for nearly a decade.
“I guess that comes as a little bit of a surprise to me because I did know in years past, certainly when I was secretary, we did track those kinds of things.”
Shader said the DEP has a good sense of water systems’ vulnerabilities across the state, and added that the agency’s regional offices work closely with water suppliers. In addition, the agency maintains a detailed public database called the Drinking Water Reporting System that records regulatory violations and solutions for water systems across the state. But among pages and pages of data, there were no mentions of boil water advisories.
If a local authority issues a boil water advisory, it has to notify DEP, send a copy of the notice it sent to residents, and then follow-up about how the problem was addressed. DEP has data on boil water advisories, it just doesn’t aggregate that data in any way.
To the Environmental Protection Agency, boil water advisories are not “reportable events,” and so doesn’t require DEP or any other state level agency to tabulate and share that information. Officials said the advisory itself isn’t a problem but rather a means of addressing a problem, such as the presence of harmful bacteria.
Three of PWSA’s four recent boil water advisories stemmed from infrastructure issues. The requisites for a healthy system are really threefold, said PWSA’s Weimar: well-designed, well-operated and well-maintained. And that third piece is where Pittsburgh got into trouble.
“Nobody made the investments necessary to make sure we didn’t have these risks,” he said.
In other words, the system was allowed to fall to pieces and could require as much as $5 billion of investment. While PWSA plays catch-up, spending money to replace or fix aging infrastructure, chances are the city’s going to see more boil water advisories.
And Pittsburgh’s not alone. Every few years the American Society of Civil Engineers grades states on their water and wastewater infrastructure. In 2014, Pennsylvania’s water systems earned a D.
While DEP couldn’t tell me how many advisories were called last year, a news search revealed there have been more than 50 boil water advisories across Pennsylvania in the last 13 months.
A majority of them resulted from infrastructure failures.