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Breach Renews Fears About Aging Water Pipe System

By Rosalind S. Helderman and Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A mile-long section of a major commuter road between Montgomery County and the District could remain closed through the weekend, as engineers attempt to repair damage from a water main rupture yesterday that endangered drivers and renewed fears about the region's crumbling water pipe network.

The break of a 66-inch pipeline that runs under River Road in Bethesda caused widespread water disruptions across a large part of southern Montgomery. County schools released children early on their last day before winter vacation. Several grocery stores and a hospital brought in portable toilets and bottled water, fearing the dramatic break might result in a lengthy water outage.

Utility workers isolated the broken section of the massive main, rerouted water flow and restored service to customers by 2 p.m., said Jim Neustadt, a spokesman for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. Water remained safe to drink because the 8 a.m. break did not cause pressure in the system to dip low enough to allow contaminants to seep into the pipe, he said. Some residents' water was discolored from harmless sediment, he said.

At the rupture's peak, 150,000 gallons of water a minute were gushing into the roadway, as fire and emergency personnel worked to rescue at least nine drivers trapped in their cars.

A Maryland State Highway Administration spokeswoman said the flooding swept away soil, gravel and stones beneath River Road near Potomac. In some places, the pavement cracked, fell or crumbled, and could collapse under the weight of automobiles, she said.

WSSC is taking the lead on repairs and has agreed to a $510,000 emergency contract for the work, which officials hope will be completed by Monday, Neustadt said. He said repairs are complicated by a downed utility pole and a gas line nearby. The task will involve replacing a 16-foot, 14-ton piece of pipe deep underground.

Repairs to the section of roadway that sustained the worst damage, between Seven Locks Road and Fenway Drive, just southeast of Congressional Country Club, will take at least a couple of days, said highway administration spokeswoman Valerie Burnette Edgar. River Road will be closed between Bradley Boulevard and Seven Locks Road, a distance of more than a mile, during the repairs, according to the WSSC.

Suburban Hospital in Bethesda canceled elective surgeries and closed its emergency room for a few hours yesterday because of low water pressure, a spokeswoman said. Pepco reported a power outage in the immediate vicinity of the break, and hotel giant Marriott closed its corporate headquarters in Bethesda at noon.

WSSC managers said they do not have any theories about what caused the break in the 44-year-old pipeline, which originates in Potomac at one of WSSC's two main filtration plants and ends near the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Washington D.C. Temple.

Neustadt said the pipeline was last inspected in 1998 and was scheduled to be reinspected by 2011. WSSC is working to equip pipelines, including the River Road line, with a sophisticated fiber-optic monitoring system that would allow computers to use sound to detect creeping corrosion.

Yesterday's break was the third major disruption to a WSSC pipeline in the past six months and sparked new questions about the aging infrastructure of the utility that serves Montgomery and Prince George's County.

In June, a four-foot water main broke in central Montgomery, causing what officials said was the most widespread disruption to service in Maryland in at least 20 years. Tens of thousands of residents were asked to boil their water to protect against possible contamination, and many restaurants were closed.

A similar advisory was issued last month when another WSSC water main broke near Largo. In May last year, a string of three water main breaks occurred in Montgomery over the course of two days.

Elected leaders said they hoped yesterday's dramatic flood, carried live on national television, would serve as a wake-up call to the long-ignored problem of deteriorating pipes. They called for a prompt joint meeting of the Prince George's and Montgomery county councils and said they hoped that a federal stimulus package proposed by President-elect Barack Obama (D) might include funding for rebuilding the water network.

"This is underground and unseen, and people don't want to know about it unless there's a problem," said Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D). "But if there's a problem, it's a huge problem."

Almost a quarter of the agency's pipes are more than 50 years old, and the frequency of breaks typically increases as temperatures fall. This month, WSSC officials said that crews repaired 376 broken and leaking water mains in November, compared with 324 in November of last year. From Jan. 1 through Nov. 30, the WSSC repaired 1,357 breaks and leaks, an average of four breaks and leaks a day.

The WSSC replaces about 25 miles of pipe a year. But in February, representatives from Montgomery and Prince George's counties who make up the sanitary commission opted not to assess an additional fee of $20 a month that had been proposed to fund more widespread pipe replacement.

The six commissioners had given preliminary approval of the fee, but after a public outcry, the Prince George's representatives withdrew their support, saying a flat fee was unfair to low-income customers.

Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) said yesterday that the two counties must work together to find a way to fund pipe replacement.

"We all agree we must do something quickly," he said. Prince George's plans to formally request $48.6 million in federal stimulus money for WSSC pipeline projects in the county.

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