WSSC Chief Reveals Water-Main Leak Near Beltway in Oct. 2008

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A massive water main in College Park sprang a leak near the Capital Beltway last fall, a top utility official said Tuesday, signaling the "early stages of a serious event" in a pipe 50 percent larger than one that burst in December and stranded motorists on River Road in Bethesda.

"That would have been horrific," Jerry N. Johnson, general manager of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, said after revealing the leak to the Montgomery County Council during a regular briefing.

The 96-inch College Park main, among the largest in the WSSC's water pipe system, is the same kind of concrete pipe that burst along River Road, forcing helicopter and boat rescues of motorists stranded in the frigid torrent. The River Road pipe was 66 inches in diameter.

The College Park pipe leak was found near the Maryland State Police barracks adjacent to the Beltway near the Route 1 interchange, WSSC officials said. Johnson, who became WSSC's general manager last month, said crews discovered the leak in October 2008 after water had seeped to the surface. After the pipe was drained, workers found a gap between two pieces of steel lining that allowed the corrosion. Repairs were finished in July, and the pipe was put back in service Aug. 4, a WSSC spokesman said.

Asked after the council briefing whether the leak in the College Park pipe gave him concerns about the safety of the rest of the system, Johnson said: "They all keep you up at night. There is lots and lots and lots of infrastructure all over the place. Failure at any time would be an issue."

The WSSC provides water and sewer service to 1.8 million people in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

WSSC officials have said it would take 200 years to replace the 5,500-mile system on the current funding schedule. However, they have said it is the 357 miles of the larger, high-pressure concrete pipes that are causing the most concern, because they can explode without warning and cause the most damage.

WSSC officials have said they are playing catch-up after falling behind on inspecting those mains earlier this decade. WSSC engineers said such pipes should be inspected every five years. The 7.3-mile River Road pipe, which is scheduled for a full inspection this fall, was last scrutinized in 1998. Jim Neustadt, a WSSC spokesman, said he could not determine Tuesday night when the College Park pipe was last inspected.

Johnson said WSSC inspection plans would put the utility on a schedule of every 6.5 years by 2013.

Council members said they were happy to hear Johnson, who was head of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority for 12 years, address the problem with the large pipes.

"Obviously, these big pipes out there are cause for concern," said Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), whose committee oversees WSSC issues. "It's clear he's focusing on it big-time."

Johnson said that inspecting the largest pipes costs $130,000 per mile, which includes leaving behind listening equipment that can detect when a pipe is beginning to weaken. The utility also faces logistical limits, because it can drain only so many miles and still keep the system running. Last fiscal year, the WSSC inspected and made repairs to 10.5 miles of pipe, Johnson said.

The WSSC recently released a budget proposal to Prince George's and Montgomery that would require an 11 percent increase in water and sewer fees. Johnson called it a "standstill" budget that would not significantly increase funding for pipe inspections and repairs.

Getting that approved may be difficult, coming on top of an 8.5 percent increase that WSSC customers began paying July 1. One WSSC commissioner said that such an increase is unlikely when ratepayers are facing a dismal economy and job losses.

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