Rupture in Water Line Brings Misery to Much of Montgomery

A water main break at the Meadowside Nature Center in Rock Creek Regional Park in Rockville, Md., has affected nearly every resident in Montgomery County and prompted restrictions. Video by Preston Keres/The Washington PostEditor: Jonathan Forsythe/
By Steve Hendrix and Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A massive rupture in a 48-inch water main disrupted routines across large swaths of Montgomery County yesterday, forcing residents to scramble for sources of safe drinking water and prompting county officials to order about 700 restaurants not to prepare food.

The break shuttered government facilities and closed day camps and swimming pools on what for many families was the first morning of summer vacation. Thousands of households in northern and central Montgomery were without water or normal water pressure through much of the day, and even many residents who never lost service were advised to boil tap water before drinking it for at least the next three days.

Water service was restored to all customers last night, officials said. But they said the boil-water advisory, issued by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, remained in effect.

The advisory affects tens of thousands of customers and covers much of Montgomery outside the Capital Beltway. Officials said boiling water was the best way to kill any contaminants that might have seeped into the system when pressure was low.

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) ordered about 1,200 businesses, including food markets and restaurants, not to sell food unless it was packaged before the rupture Sunday night. Leggett, citing the advice of state and county health officials, said that he recognized the hardship on business owners but that he had no alternative.

"We were trying to exhaust every conceivable way we could" to avoid forcing closures, he said at a news conference last night. The order will remain in effect until at least tomorrow morning.

County health officials said there had been no reports of anyone being sickened by contaminated water. Symptoms could include fever and diarrhea.

For many, the first challenge yesterday was to stock up on bottled water, which immediately became a scarce commodity.

"I've been to two Giants, a Shoppers and a Safeway; there's no water in Montgomery County," said Johnet Travers of Olney.

The rupture occurred about 9 p.m. Sunday in a wooded area near Muncaster Mill Road. The cause of the rupture was still unknown yesterday, but WSSC maintenance officials said it might have resulted from faulty materials in the pipe's concrete-and-steel construction or erosion in the surrounding terrain.

Crews did not locate the problem until near dawn yesterday because the break was in an isolated area near the Meadowside Nature Center, officials said. By then, the rupture had created, in effect, a new tributary to Rock Creek as treated water coursed 100 feet or so down an embankment and into the stream.

Authorities think more than 100 million gallons spilled before water could be diverted around the break. Water service was restored to all customers last night, officials said.

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