Resident warned WSSC of water problems near major pipe break


WSSC crews work to repair a broken water main at Connecticut Avenue and Chevy Chase Lake Drive. The pipe ruptured Monday night.  (Katherine Shaver/The Washington Post)
March 21, 2013

A Montgomery County resident reported an unusual water flow out of a Chevy Chase street on Monday, about seven hours before a large water main exploded in the same area, a utility official confirmed Thursday.

The man, a Chevy Chase resident, told The Washington Post that he reported water squirting up from an opening in a circular metal plate embedded in Chevy Chase Lake Drive, just east of Connecticut Avenue, about 1:15 p.m. About 7:45 p.m., a highly pressurized water main five feet in diameter burst at the site, sending a 40-foot geyser rocketing into the air and blowing a crater into Chevy Chase Lake Drive and a nearby stream bank.

Jim Neustadt, a spokesman for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, confirmed that the utility received a call just after 1 p.m. Monday from someone reporting water flowing out of Chevy Chase Lake Drive near Connecticut Avenue.

A WSSC inspector responded to the area that afternoon, Neustadt said, and found what was thought to be a leak in a valve. He said the inspector put in a work order but determined that “it could hold until morning,” which Neustadt said is common for smaller leaks.

Neustadt said the WSSC needs to interview the caller and research whether the utility received any other reports. “We’ll look into what was known and when it was known and how we responded to that,” he said.


What happens when water mains burst.

Asked whether the WSSC thinks that the leak was related to the massive break, Neustadt said, “It’s possible, but that’s something we’re going to have to look into.”

Neustadt also confirmed Thursday that the Chevy Chase pipe was manufactured by a defunct New Jersey company that the WSSC and other utilities successfully sued for flaws that left the pipes more prone to breaking. The same company, Interpace, manufactured the 66-inch pipe that burst along River Road in Bethesda in 2008 and stranded motorists who had to be rescued from a torrent of water.

He said most of the WSSC’s 350 miles of concrete water mains were manufactured by Interpace, but he did not have an exact percentage late Thursday.

Neustadt said it will take several months to pinpoint the cause of Monday’s break. However, he said, WSSC officials and consultants are examining the fact that it occurred in an area where the 60-inch pipe joined a 54-inch pipe as well as a 24-inch main. The 24-inch main had been capped and was no longer in use. The 60-inch pipe that broke was installed in 1980.

The location of the three pipes “is relevant to the investigation,” Neustadt said, “but we don’t know if it’s the cause.”

The acoustic break-detection system installed in the pipe when it was last inspected in 2009 would not be expected to provide warning of a weakening pipe joint. The system is designed only to warn of breaks in the steel-wire backbone of the pipe itself, utility officials have said.

But Dudley Ives said his call to the WSSC on Monday did provide a warning. Ives said that while walking on the eastern side of Connecticut Avenue about 12:40 p.m. Monday, he saw water squirting up about one inch from the circular metal plate embedded in Chevy Chase Lake Drive. Ives said he assumed that the metal plate, which was about four feet from the eastern edge of Connecticut Avenue, capped an underground valve that had rusted over.

Jerry Irvine, a spokesman for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, explains how a 54-inch, highly pressurized water main burst along Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase Lake, just inside the Capital Beltway, late Monday night. (Katherine Shaver/The Washington Post)

“Water was not gushing out,” Ives said. “It was just like a garden hose coming up.”

When he passed the spot again about 1:05 p.m. on his way home from an errand, he said, the water was still squirting up and running into the gutter on Chevy Chase Lake Drive. When he arrived home about 10 minutes later, he said, he called the emergency number on the WSSC Web site.

“I really didn’t think it was an emergency, but it was leaking, and I thought maybe we would get a freeze at night and a car turning in there would hit a sheet of ice and have an accident,” said Ives, 66, a retired federal worker.

Ives said the WSSC call-taker asked where the problem was and then said, “Somebody will be out there in two hours.”

Ives, who said he served on a voluntary WSSC citizens advisory board for a year in the mid-1990s, said he didn’t speak with anyone from the utility after his call. But he said he was certain that the water he saw squirting up on Chevy Chase Lake Drive was connected to the rupture. “It’s a sign something is wrong,” he said, “any time water comes to the surface and is doing it continuously.”

Water use restrictions for 1.8 million people in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties remained in effect for a third day Thursday, as the utility tried to replenish the more than 60 million gallons lost in the break.

Katherine Shaver is a transportation and development reporter. She joined The Washington Post in 1997 and has covered crime, courts, education and local government but most prefers writing about how people get — or don’t get — around the Washington region.
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