Water Main Break's Cause Remains A Mystery

The cause of last month's water main break near Muncaster Mill Road remains unknown.
The cause of last month's water main break near Muncaster Mill Road remains unknown. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
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By Ann E. Marimow and Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 17, 2008

Regional water officials presented the County Council with piles of paper this week but no answer to the question many people were asking: What caused the water main break last month that closed restaurants and forced thousands of residents to boil water for days?

Teresa D. Daniell, interim general manager of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, said her agency is investigating the cause of the water problems, and she promised to get back to the council by September.

One possibility, Daniell said, is that groundwater seeped into the 38-year-old pipe, eroding its steel construction. The rupture occurred June 15 in a wooded area near Muncaster Mill Road, and it took crews hours to locate the problem in the isolated spot.

Daniell deemed the commission's response "well executed" but said the agency is looking for better technology to be able to locate breaks more quickly. With its aging infrastructure, WSSC had a record 2,100 breaks last year, and she said about one a day has occurred this year.

Council members also quizzed advisers to County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) for a second time about the county's reverse 911 calling system. Drew Tracy, an assistant chief at the police department, said alerting all of the county's households to an emergency would cost about 20 cents a call.

Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) said that politicians can reach voters with so-called robo calls for as little as 3 cents a call.

"Politicians can make obnoxious calls for three to five cents," he said. "Seems like you're spending a lot more money than any of us and for a lot more important call."

Council President Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) appeared somewhat annoyed when assistant chief administrative officer Thomas Street reminded the council that WSSC was "in the lead" in the aftermath of the water main break.

"Yes, it was a WSSC incident, but it was a WSSC incident in Montgomery County. They are still our residents and our responsibility," Knapp said. "We need to make sure we step up to the plate and not look in the other direction."

Street responded, "I don't disagree."

Progress Seen on New Water Chief

Sitting at the table during the briefing Tuesday were two of the key players in the search for a new general manager at WSSC, Montgomery Commissioner Adrienne A. Mandel and acting Deputy General Manager Rudolph S. Chow.

The six commissioners, three each appointed by the Montgomery and Prince George's county executives, are divided along county lines over who should replace Andrew D. Brunhart, whose contract was not renewed in February.

Prince George's commissioners are backing Chow, a longtime agency employee. Montgomery's commissioners prefer an outside candidate from another Washington area agency, said Leggett's chief administrative officer, Timothy Firestine.

Last month, Leggett and Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) vowed to intervene to resolve the differences among the commissioners.

Mandel has declined to comment on the closed-door process. But when asked after the hearing about the status of talks, she said, "Yes, there's definitely progress. I can't give you a timeline, but we are addressing the issue as a priority."

Present and Accounted For

Also appearing before the council this week was Darlene Flynn, the county's acting homeland security director, whose absence from an earlier briefing on the water main break had irked several council members.

Council members said they were frustrated that Flynn was attending a regional meeting on homeland security instead of answering their questions just a few days before her predecessor, Gordon Aoyagi, was to retire.

Flynn was not quizzed directly by the council Tuesday, but she said after the meeting that the office has a small staff and has to stretch to cover all of its obligations.

Leggett's team is reviewing résumés of candidates to replace Aoyagi, and Flynn said she has applied for the job.

Rockville Names Spokeswoman

Marylou Berg is the new spokeswoman for the city of Rockville. Berg, who had worked as an assistant to City Manager Scott Ullery, has been acting director of communications since February, when she stepped in for departing spokesman Tony Ruffin.

Berg received a master's degree in communication from the University of Colorado and a master's in public administration from the University of Kansas. She received a bachelor of arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College.

Before her appointment as city spokeswoman, Berg specialized in intergovernmental issues, helping the city with state and county matters. Her interest in municipal government might be hereditary. Her mother is a former Colorado Springs mayor.

Gibson Remains Top Berliner Aide

Apologies to Cindy Gibson, whose job we handed off to one of her colleagues in last week's edition. Gibson is the top aide to County Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), and Lou D'Ovidio is senior adviser.

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