'Boil water' advisory in effect for several suburbs, concerns raised about communication

Jul 21, 2016

A "boil water" advisory is expected to remain in effect until at least Friday in numerous municipalities affected by Wednesday night's water main break in the Town of Amherst. Meanwhile, concerns were raised about the Erie County Water Authority's communication amidst the break.


Shortly before 9 p.m., the break occured near Sheridan Drive and Millersport Highway. Residents in Amherst, Williamsville, Clarence, Newstead, Town of Lancaster, Village of Lancaster and Depew experienced either a significant drop in water flow or a full loss.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz briefs reporters Thursday morning about the previous night's water main break which affected 250,000 customers in seven suburban municipalities. With him are Dolores Funke (left), head of the Environmental Compliance Services Unit for the Erie County Health Department and Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein.
Credit Michael Mroziak, WBFO

An estimated 250,000 people were affected. 

The cause of the break to what was identified as a 36-inch line remains under investigation. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, in a Thursday morning briefing, explained that while the Erie County Water Authority is an entity completely seperate from Erie County government, county officials provided some assistance as the situation unfolded.

"The emergency operations center was open for a limited basis last night, as we were gathering information and working with our friends from the water authority to figure out exactly what had happened," said Poloncarz, who also explained that his personnel also worked with officials in Niagara and Wyoming Counties to ensure help was in place in the event of fires during the water outage.

In the meantime, those living in affected areas are advised to boil all water intended for internal consumption, including drinking, use while brushing teeth and in food preparation. The Erie County Health Department explained that when water mains lose pressure, it increases the chance that untreated water and harmful microbes can enter your water. Harmful microbes in drinking water can cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea, headaches or other symptoms and may pose a special health risk for infants, some elderly and people with severely compromised immune systems.

"This 'boil water' notice is just precautionary," said Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein. "There is no evidence that the harmful bacteria are in our water system. Water samples are being collected throughout the Northtowns for testing to determine if the harmful bacteria had made their way into the water."

Dr. Burstein said two negative test results must come back, 24 hours apart, before the boil order may be lifted.

Officials are also asking people to voluntarily limit the amount of water they use until service is fully restored to help quicken the process of returning the system to normal.

This poses a challenge to restaurants, which use dozens of gallons of water daily for various purposes including food preparation. Among those scrambling to stock up on bottled water and other alternative supplies Thursday morning was Ellie Grenauer, co-owner of the Glen Park Tavern in Williamsville and the immediate past president of the Western New York chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association.

Among the services that needed adjustment in light of the "boil water" notice, according to Grenauer, are soda pop and coffee, both of which typically use equipment involving water lines. 

"There's little things that people don't think about, like washing lettuce, so we need quite a bit of water," she said.

Grenauer acknowledged the possibility of local eateries getting more business during the "boil water" period, by some affected by the same notice who decide to skip the extra steps needed to cook at home and instead go out to eat. 

"We've been out this morning purchasing iced tea and pop and just getting ready to hopefully have a successful day," she said.

Sisters of Charity St. Joseph's Hospital in Cheektowaga canceled all elective surgeries Thursday at the request of the Erie County Health Department. All other services within the hospital, including the Emergency Department, were operating as usual. Sisters of Charity Hospital’s Main Street Campus is not affected.

Attempts to phone the Erie County Water Authority or access its website were unsuccessful by many Wednesday night. Poloncarz suggested ECWA could have done a better job communicating the problem.

In a series of Twitter messages, ECWA acknowledged a need to improve communication with the public. When the Twitter segments are combined, the message reads: "A "Boil Water Notice" is required after a rare occurrence like last night's water main break in Amherst. In fact, the Erie County Water Authority has not needed to issue a Boil Water Notice in ten years. The requirement for a Boil Water Notice comes from an abundance of caution. While it is unlikely a health issue may occur, we owe it to our rate payers to keep them informed of even the most remote possibility.

"In the future, we are exploring providing automated notifications via email and robocalls for these once-in-a-decade occurrences.We are testing the water twice in succession, as required, and expect to have those results as soon as possible. The Boil Water Notice may be lifted at that time as determined by the Health Department."