How do State College water authority’s alerts work? Residents air concerns after advisory

A boil water advisory issued for parts of State College on Monday — which has since been lifted — has some residents concerned about how the notification system for the State College Borough Water Authority works.

Residences along more than 150 streets in Patton and Ferguson townships were placed under a boil water advisory Monday after two water main breaks occurred at North Oak Lane and Patton Lane, and another at Carnegie Drive and Driftwood Drive. The State College Borough Water Authority wrote in a notice that many streets may be at an increased risk from microbial contamination. The advisory was lifted Wednesday morning.

While the water main breaks happened before noon Monday, Brian Heiser, executive director of the State College Borough Water Authority, said the issue that led to the boil water notice happened around 2:45 p.m. that day.

“The notice was issued as soon (as) the extent of the situation was determined,” he wrote in an email.

In a Facebook post, Patton Township wrote the water authority pushed out 1,700 calls on Monday through its notify system; door tags were left at any properties where a call wasn’t answered on Monday night.

Still, some residents who live in the impacted area say they never received a phone call or door tag informing them of the boil water advisory. Comments from residents who weren’t notified — or, in their opinion, were notified too late — flooded Patton Township’s social media posts about the advisory.

Stephanie Kirsch lives in a rented apartment in Patton Township on a street within the boil water advisory. She only learned of the advisory though a group chat she is in with her neighbors; she said she was never notified by the SCBWA.

“If I had not known about it, I think that it could have been pretty catastrophic. I’m a single parent of four kids and one with a disability who’s prone to getting sick and ... medically, financially, that could have been a really bad thing,” Kirsch told the CDT. “State College is definitely one of those towns where people come and go, and there needs to be a better system put in place to notify new renters or new people who have purchased their home. Because really, it’s a huge communication issue and a safety issue.”

Kirsch rents her apartment from a large rental company, so the water bill isn’t in her name. She said she didn’t receive any notifications from the rental company, either. She did receive a message from the State College Area School District that afternoon, as three district school buildings were impacted by the boil water advisory.

Another Patton Township resident and small business owner had a similar situation. She learned about the advisory from a friend who lives across town. She said she didn’t receive a phone call or door tag at her home from the SCBWA.

“I am a stay at home mom and we have three very young children. I have a baby who drank tap water with his formula bottles all day. I have two toddlers that drank it all day. And then myself, who is pregnant, I drank it all day. So yeah, I was very upset to say the least,” said Ashlee, who declined to use her last name for safety reasons.

She and her family feel fine and haven’t experienced any symptoms since consuming the water.

Heiser said the notification call system that was used on Monday is “dependent upon good information from our customers.” He said customers can call the SCBWA at 814-238-6766 to update their contact information in the billing system. Patton Township encouraged residents to do the same. There is also now an “update information” form on its website.

What is required?

Requirements related to notices such as boil water advisories are set by federal and state regulations. A spokesperson for the state Department of Environmental Protection said boil water notices are issued by water suppliers when “unexpected conditions create the potential for biological contamination.”

In SCBWA’s case earlier this week, a loss of positive press in the distribution system required a “Tier 1” public notice, the spokesperson said. According to the DEP website, within 24 hours, public water systems must provide direct delivery of a public notice to each of its service connections using at least one of the following methods: hand delivery, electronic mail, automatic telephone dialing systems, or another form of direct delivery approved in writing by the department.

Water suppliers must also provide public notice to transient and nontransient service connections, if applicable, via radio or television, according to the website.

The DEP also notes that if the water supplier sends a public notice and it’s bounced back, they then need to send the public notice by mail or another approved alternative within the required time frame.

The SCBWA website includes some information about public notifications as well. For Tier 1 notifications, it outlines that impacted customers will be notified within 24 hours.

“Depending on the nature of the situation, you will receive either a phone call or a formal paper notice,” the site states. It also says the website and its Facebook page will also be updated as needed, although the last post on its Facebook page is from September 2022.