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Health Officials Are Lying About Chaotic “Boil Water” Advisory in New Rochelle, Lower Westchester

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Health Officials Are Lying About Chaotic “Boil Water” Advisory in New Rochelle, Lower Westchester

May 29, 2015 - 16:32
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A Talk of the Sound Investigation reveals incompetence, indifference and falsehoods in the highest levels of New York State and Westchester County Government in the wake of a disastrous “boil water” alert that needlessly disrupted the lives of over 150,000 people.

NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- Someone is lying. That’s for sure. The only question is who.

When a last minute “boil water” advisory for 150,000 United Water customers caused chaos earlier this week, Talk of the Sound opened an investigation into why there was such late notice for a maintenance project planned weeks earlier. For reasons that remain unclear, the Westchester County Department of Health (“WCDOH”) waited until 4:29 p.m. on Tuesday to began the process of notifying residents of seven municipalities of problems with their water that would last 14 hours the next day.

WCDOH issues a statement which read:

The boil water advisory is being issued as a precautionary measure while New York City Department of Environmental Protection performs scheduled maintenance of its chlorination system resulting in inadequate disinfection of water provided to United Water Rate District #1.

A boil water advisory means that residents in the affected area must boil all tap water at a rolling boil for a minimum of one minute prior to drinking it or using it to prepare food, wash dishes by hand or brush teeth. Restaurants, delis, bodegas and all food service establishments in the affected area also must boil water before serving it or using it to prepare food. Residents also can use bottled water as an alternative to boiling.”

The advisory does not extend to bathing, clothes washing or the use of a dishwasher.

With no warning and such late notice, government agencies, news organizations, schools, businesses and residents scrambled to respond. The result was confusion and anxiety throughout Lower Westchester.

Talk of the Sound began to investigate immediately on Tuesday and has since talked to dozens of government officials at the state, county and local level as well as utility executives, local business owners, operators of critical infrastructure, schools, and more to sort out why a notification of what should have been routine maintenance went off the rails and who was responsible. Talk of the Sound has been in communication with several media relations officials in the WCDOH, the New York State Department of Health (“NYSDOH”), Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, Westchester County Communications Director Ned McCormack, WCDOH Assistant Commissioner Peter DeLucia, Montefiore Hospital, the City of New Rochelle, and many others.

The result has been a seemingly endless round of finger pointing.

At its core, Westchester County officials have repeatedly blamed NYSDOH delays in initiating the “boil water” advisory. NYSDOH responded to these allegations Thursday in an email by issuing a flat denial.

“DOH was not involved with this boil water advisory,” said a spokesperson for the New York State Department of Health, in an email sent to Talk of the Sound “on background”. Talk of the Sound asked questions “on the record” and did not agree to receiving information “on background” so we share this information with readers here.

The New York State DOH spokesman is Jeffrey Hammond the person responsible for the unsigned “on background” email denying any role in the “boil water” advisory. Hammond has not returned phone calls and emails seeking clarification over the past two days.

UPDATE 2:37 PM: "DOH routinely collaborates with local health departments on public water issues. While DOH collaborated with Westchester County and concurred with the decision, DOH did not direct the county to issue a boil water advisory." (NYS Department of Health response after this article was published)

The statement from Hammond’s office contradicts what Westchester County government has been telling Talk of the Sound for four days, specifically that WCDOH was waiting for NYSDOH to make the decision on the "Boil Water" advisory and to indicate precisely which customers would be effected.

On Thursday, Astorino Communications Director Ned McCormack told Talk of the Sound that two weeks ago the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) announced plans to test a new filtration system involving chlorine and UV purification that might effect up to 500,00 people.

Talk of the Sound has been unable to confirm any of this independently because DEP has not responded to repeated phone calls and emails over the course of the week.

McCormack said WCDOH deliberately held off issuing the “boil water” advisory until it had received a phone call from NYSDOH which was expected to clarify precisely which customers would be effected. McCormack and county health officials have stated that the call from NYSDOH was not received by WCDOH until until 2:00 p.m. Tuesday.

On Thursday, NYSDOH initially denied any role in the “boil water” advisory (see email exchange below).

Informed of the denial from NYSDOH McCormack directed Talk of the Sound to Dr. Roger Sokol, Director of the Bureau of Water Supply Protection at the Center for Environmental Health in the New York State Department of Health.

“He is with the State Health Department,” wrote McCormack late Thursday night. “He was on the phone with our Health Department on Tuesday when the boil water decision was made.”

“He is expecting your call,” added McCormack.

Sokol oversees an organization within NYSDOH that regulates the operation, design and quality of public drinking water supplies. The Bureau of Water Supply Protection is charged with assuring water sources are adequately protected and, according to the NYSDOH web site, deals with reports of water-related illness, drinking water quality, advisories, or problems with a water provider, drinking water treatment and the design of water treatment systems, drinking water system security, emergency preparedness, and response.

Talk of the Sound called Dr. Sokol at his office Friday morning. A woman who picked up the telephone initially agreed to leave a message for Dr. Sokol. After not receiving a reply, a second call was made. The same woman now stated that Dr. Sokol would not return the call, that he would not speak to any reporters per agency policy and directed Talk of the Sound back to the NYSDOH press office where, she said, they would be expecting our call.

Repeated phone calls to NYSDOH spokesman Jeffrey Hammond were not returned. It is Hammond who is responsible for the “on background” email denying any role in the “boil water” advisory.

EDITOR'S NOTE: For readers not familiar with journalistic protocol, it might not be immediately apparent how inappropriate the response from the NYSDOH press office was; a response to a series of “on the record” questions prefaced by the words “ON BACKGROUND” The terms “off the record” or “on background” or “not for attribution” are mutually agreed verbal contracts between sources and journalists that information will be provided to a reporter upon conditions accepted by both parties. A source can ask for the conditions before providing information and, if those conditions are accepted, the journalist is bound to honor them For a government spokesperson to respond to on the record questions by unilaterally declaring a reply to be “on background” is unprofessional, unethical and does not bind the journalist in anyway as the condition for getting the information has not been agreed to beforehand.

Here is the entirety of the email exchange between Talk of the Sound and NYSDOH Press Office on Thursday (since updated, see above):

============= ============= ============= ============= =============

From: Robert Cox [mailto:[email protected]

Sent: Thursday, May 28, 2015 8:39 AM

To: doh.sm.press

Subject: boil water alert for New Rochelle and 6 other communities today

I am a reporter working on a story with an 11 am deadline There was a boil water alert issued for yesterday: https://www.unitedwater.com/cusNewscenter.aspx?id=11579

The alert came late in the day Tuesday and the distribution of the information to the public was incomplete.

I spoke with the Westchester County Department of Health. They told me that although they knew this planned event was to happen this week they did not know precisely which customers would be impacted so they waited until they got that information from NYS DOH. They said that they got a call on Tuesday at 2 pm and then put the word out.

I want to understand the timeline on all of this because the way the public found out about it was late and haphazard.

So...

  • Is that correct, that NYS DOH called WCDOH at 2 pm Tuesday to inform them that the impacted customers would be United Water District#1?
  • This is a planned event, isn’t this also an annual event?
  • When did NYS DOH first know generally that this event would take place on May 27, 2015?
  • When was that communicated to WCDOH?
  • How was NYS DOH informed of this event initially by NYC DEP?
  • Any other background, color or timeline on this would be appreciated.

Thanks

Robert Cox

Publisher and Managing Editor

============= ============= ============= ============= =============

On May 28, 2015, at 3:16 PM, doh.sm.press <[email protected]> wrote:

Hi Robert, 

On background:

DOH was not involved with this boil water advisory.

============= ============= ============= ============= =============

From: Robert Cox <[email protected]>

Subject: Re: boil water alert for New Rochelle and 6 other communities today

Date: May 28, 2015 at 3:34:02 PM EDT

To: "doh.sm.press" <[email protected]>

I have the Deputy Commissioner of WCDOH and the Communications Director for Westchester County Exec Rob Astorino on the record stating that this originated with NYS DOH, that you knew about this for 2 weeks, that NYS DOH is the one who makes this call, that NYS DOH called at 2 pm Tuesday, and more.

So how can I use a statement to the contrary on background?

You are telling me what I have been told for 2 days are all lies.

I need some definitive on the record response.

Bob Cox

Sent from my iPhone

============= ============= ============= ============= =============

However it came about, the failure to make timely notification of the “Boil Water” Advisory caused a great deal of turmoil in the effected communities.

Residents, businesses, schools and hospitals in New Rochelle, along with six surrounding communities, in United Water Rate District #1 (City of New Rochelle, Town of Eastchester, Village of Bronxville, Village of Tuckahoe, Town of Pelham, Village of Pelham, and Village of Pelham Manor) scrambled to respond to the “Boil Water” alert.

The advisory, sent out by WCDOH on Tuesday May 26th at 4:29 pm, went into effect the following morning at 10:00 a.m. and remained in effect until midnight.

The result of the late notice and flawed communication was chaos: doctors and dentists cancelled appointments and closed offices, scheduled surgeries were cancelled, schools and other public buildings scrambled to disable sinks and water fountains, bathrooms normally available to the public were locked, bars and restaurants were unable to serve fountain drinks or make ice, bagel production ceased. Even Starbucks stopped selling Frappuccinos.

Across the effected area, business owners were angry, parents of school children alarmed and elderly residents confused and frightened. The economic and social impact was as significant as it was avoidable.

Communications from United Water and WCDOH was haphazard and ineffective, largely due to the timing of the announcement late in the day on Tuesday but also due to flaws in the United Water robocall system where customers with numbers on file with the utility did not receive robocalls.

The event officially began shortly before 4:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Talk of the Sound has obtained records which show that Heather McVeigh an Assistant Engineer in the Bureau of Environmental Quality at the Westchester County Department of Health issued the advisory at 4:29 p.m. She sent the advisory to Lynda DiMenna, Manager of United Water Westchester with copies to Robert Idoni, Superintendent of Operations for United Water Westchester and Chris Graziano, Senior Director and General Manager of United Water utilities in New York and Rhode Island.

DiMenna then forwarded the advisory to various municipal officials at 4:49 p.m. who, in turn, passed it along to others. With many offices closing at or about the time the advisory was sent, the email was not acted upon until the following day in many cases. What should have been a rather routine, planned maintenance of New York City’s water supply turned into a communications fiasco, causing serious disruptions in seven Westchester communities and untold financial losses.

Government officials who spoke with Talk of the Sound were remarkably cavalier about the disruption they had caused.

“This is no different than when we have a water main break,” said Peter DeLucia, Assistant Commissioner at the Westchester County Department of Health who dismissed the event as a minor inconvenience.

That is simply untrue.

A water main break is an unexpected event that might impact a single neighborhood or a small section of a municipality. The maintenance work on Wednesday was planned weeks in advance and the “boil water” advisory impacted every single person in every neighborhood of an entire water district encompassing seven municipalities.

DeLucia acknowledged that WCDOH was aware of the event in advance.

DeLucia said that WCDOH knew that up to 450,000 people might be impacted by the DEP maintenance. Rather than cause “undo alarm” for all of them, he said, WCDOH chose to wait until they were told by NYSDOH exactly which customers would be effected before issuing a “boil water” advisory. Put another way, WCDOH decided to spare 300,000 people the possibility of “undo alarm”, people who were not actually effected, by keeping 150,000 people who were actually effected in the dark until the last minute — including dozens of public and private schools, colleges, hospitals, thousands of businesses, and tens of thousands of homeowners and apartment managers.

According to DeLucia, WCDOH received a phone call at 2:00 p.m. from the New York State Department of Health informing them that 150,000 customers in United Water District #1 would be effected.

DeLucia says upon getting word from NYSDOH,  WCDOH immediately notified United Water by telephone and completed that call with United Water at about 2:15 p.m. He said United Water customers began receiving robocalls at 3:00 p.m.

United Water Director of Communications Deb Rizzi disputed DeLucia’s account. She said United Water does not act on a “Boil Water” advisory over the telephone but must wait until they have received formal notice — the announcement at 4:29 p.m.

NYSDOH spokespoerson Jeffrey Hammond also disputed DeLucia's account. 

DeLucia's account to Talk of the Sound was later echoed by Ned McCormack and County Executive Rob Astrorino in seperate phone calls, who appear to have based their statements on what they were told by WCDOH officials.

United Water and WCDOH did agree that once notification takes place, United Water has the primary responsibility to make notification of a “boil water” advisory and that WCDOH plays a secondary role.

Several media outlets including Talk of the Sound that are on the press list for WCDOH and United Water never received any advisory or press release from either company. A promised "second" copy was never received either.

New Rochelle spokesperson Kathy Gilwit told Talk of the Sound that United Water informed the City Tuesday afternoon that they would be calling their customers first thing in the morning.

“They actually sent two calls,” said Gilwit. “One on Tuesday night and the other Wednesday morning.”

Many United Water customers in New Rochelle say they never received a robocall from United Water.

The “boil water” advisory sent by WCDOH directed customers, government officials, and members of the media to contact United Water Rate District #1 at 914-632-6900.

Callers reported that operators taking those calls were unhelpful, directing customers to the United Water web site.

The web site link provided within the “boil water” advisory is “http://www.unitedwater.com/newrochelle”.

Customers visiting that link received an error message “This page cannot be viewed at this time. Please click on the link to Return to Home Page”.

The home page has not displayed any information or link to information about the “boil water” advisory all week.

A press release about the “boil water” advisory was published on the United Water web site (https://www.unitedwater.com/cusNewscenter.aspx?id=11579) and circulated via social media. However, the “News Center” section of the web site does not display the press release announcing the “boil water” advisory making it effectively invisible to anyone looking for the press release on the United Water web site. The customer service section of the web site contains no information about the “boil water” advisory.

The City School District of New Rochelle was not, based on records obtained by Talk of the Sound, directly notified by United Water of the “boil water” advisory. Instead the City of New Rochelle received the advisory and passed it along to the school district.

It was more than three hours later when Schools Superintendent Dr. Brian Osborne sent out a robocall to parents shortly before 8:30 p.m. The message advised parents of more than 11,000 students that there would be no drinking water at the school and that parents should send their children to school with bottled water. This announcement set off a run on bottled water at area stores.

The school district did not respond to a request for comment.

Residents living in apartment buildings are not United Water ratepayers, their building is the customer. Many apartment dwellers received delayed notification. The Halstead in downtown New Rochelle with over 800 apartment units did not notify occupants until 7:30 a.m.

New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson chose not to make a robocall on Tuesday night. He waited until 8 a.m. the following day — less than two hours before the “boil water” advisory went into effect. The City did post the advisory to the City website and to Twitter on Tuesday evening.

At stores like Stop & Shop and CostCo, customers hauled off cases of water to supply their restaurants, schools or businesses on what was forecast to be a hot and humid day. One manager at CostCo said, “Had we known, we could have had more bottled water on hand”.Regardless of who is responsible for the disorganized response to the most recent water advisory event WCDOH officials have acknowledged that the protocol currently in place is flawed and needs improvement.

Ned McCormack said Westchester County Health Commissioner Dr. Sherlita Amler has taken steps to insure a better process in the future.

“A meeting will be set up to work out specifics,” said McCormack.