PITTSBURGH (AP) — Insufficient chlorine in Pittsburgh's public water supply led to the closure Wednesday of nearly two dozen grade schools and a boil-water advisory in neighborhoods that include the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.
The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority said the advisory applied to 100,000 customers in the city of more than 305,000 residents, but officials also stressed that the advisory was only a precautionary measure and no public health problems were reported. Officials said Wednesday evening that no contaminants had been found in the water, but some fire hydrants would be opened to help flush the system.
The city's central and eastern neighborhoods were under the advisory. By Wednesday afternoon, School Superintendent Anthony Hamlet said city officials had supplied the 22 affected schools and two early childhood centers with enough water to reopen Thursday.
The universities did not cancel any classes or activities, but were following advisory recommendations, officials said. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center said its hospitals were operating normally and not canceling any surgeries or other procedures. UPMC was providing bottled water to its patients and otherwise abiding by the boil-water advisory.
The advisory was issued late Tuesday after tests by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection showed low levels of chlorine in water at a plant that draws water from the city's Highland Park reservoirs. Without enough chlorine in the system, a parasite known as giardia can grow and cause severe diarrhea in those who drink the water, officials said.
Authority director Bernard Lindstrom said it's unclear whether the chlorine reading system was malfunctioning or whether the plant had some as-yet undetermined problem. Lindstrom said Wednesday evening that fire hydrants "across the city" will be opened to help flush out "water of concern." He said hydrants opened will not create flood and ice hazards, and flow meters will determine how much is being flushed.
The state environmental department "is requiring us to show by hydraulic analysis based on the pressures and flow rates and knowledge of the system where that water might be and to demonstrate how much time it's going to take to either treat it thought the system that has the chemicals in it or show how it's going to be removed through flushing and use," Lindstrom said.
Lindstrom said the city was drawing water from other sources while officials continued to test the water throughout the system for chlorine levels needed to meet state standards. Tests have found no evidence of bacteria in the water, he said, adding that "we assumed the worst" in taking the Highland Park reservoirs out of the city's water supply system.
Public safety director Wendell Hissrich said the 911 center and hospitals have reported no increase of patients exhibiting symptoms consistent with the kind of potential contamination feared. Water was being delivered to hundreds of people who requested it.
Meanwhile, the city opened 15 supply centers where residents could get bottled water or fill jugs from metal water buffalo tanks. The advisory will be lifted, possibly within three days, once the state is satisfied the water is properly chlorinated, officials said. It wasn't clear how long it may take to isolate and fix the Highland Park problem, Lindstrom said.
Officials noted that Pennsylvania water quality standards are more stringent than those of the federal government and those of surrounding states.