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Main Water Break: Latest News

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Jim Neustadt
Director, Communications and Community Affairs, WSSC
Tuesday, December 23, 2008; 3:30 PM

A massive underground pipe rupture flooded River Road with four feet of rapidly swirling water this morning -- trapping motorists, blocking a major commuter artery linking Washington with the Maryland suburbs and leading to the dramatic helicopter rescue of a woman and a child from one of the vehicles.

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The break caused "widespread water outages" in school buildings across lower Montgomery County, officials said, affecting the heating system in some cases as well. As a result, all schools will close 2 1/2 hours early this afternoon, the school system announced just after 11 a.m.

Jim Neustadt, director of Communications and Community Relations at the WSSC (Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission) was online Tuesday, Dec. 23, at 3:30 p.m. ET to discuss the latest news, including the safety of the water supply, road closures, the condition of those trapped in the flooding and the long-range impact of the water main break.

A transcript follows.

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Jim Neustadt: Hi. This is Jim Neustadt. Welcome. I am with WSSC, the Director of Communications & Community Relations. I will try to answer your questions about today's break on River Road and about the aging infrastructure.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Is Friendship Heights affected and if so, which areas? Thank you.

Jim Neustadt: Everyone should have water. There could be some people with low pressure or slight discoloration. Discolored water is safe to drink, but not for use in baby formula or for laundry at this time.

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Washington, D.C.: How are the people who were trapped?

Jim Neustadt: From news reports I understand everyone will be okay and we are very thankful for that.

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Bethesda, Md.: There is still no water pressure at the hotel where I am staying. When will water be restored to area near Naval Medical Center? When restored is the water safe to drink with out boiling it?

Jim Neustadt: Water pressure is gradually returning throughout the area. It should be restored shortly. The water has always been safe to drink and there is no need to boil.

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Arlington, Va.: When is River Road reopening?

Jim Neustadt: There has been severe damage to the road. We are still assessing. We are consulting with State Highway and will do what we can to make repairs asap.

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Washington, D.C.: What testing have you done to confirm water is safe to drink?

Jim Neustadt: The safety issue involves pressure. The water pressure never dropped to a point that would allow any contaminants to possibly enter the system.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Why was there a boil water advisory for the main break in Montgomery County in June and Prince George's county in November, but not for this main break?

Jim Neustadt: Those breaks involved a significant loss of pressure for an extended period of time over a large area. WSSC workers were able to isolate the break and prevent pressure from dropping to a point of concern.

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Kensington, Md.: Channel 4 reported several times that the flow down River Road immediately after the break was 135 million gallons per minute. Is this true?

Of course, they also reported a 25 foot high wall of water...

Jim Neustadt: At the peak, the flow was 150,000 gallons per minute not millions.

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Bethesda, Md.: What is the status of the other water mains in the area. Is this just the first of many such breaks?

Jim Neustadt: This is a season where we generally have an increase in the number of breaks. We also have an aging system and we need to increase the rate at which we replace water mains.

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Alexandria, Va.: We've had a couple of breaks in my neighborhood, on a much smaller scale, of course, but our first indication was usually seepage above ground. Seems like a pipe of that size would put noticeable water on the road before the big flood. How quickly can a pipe of 5 plus feet go from a crack to a deluge?

Jim Neustadt: It can happen very quickly. We actually had a crew en route to the scene to check reports of a leak when the main ruptured.

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Takoma Ppark, Md.: Can you tell us about the condition of the overall water sewer system in the D.C. metro area? Any chance of stimulus funds to bring it back to snuff?

Jim Neustadt: I can only speak to the WSSC system and say we have 5,500 miles of water main and 25% is over 50 years old. We need to increase the rate at which we replace these pipes. That calls for long-term funding. There are efforts on a national and local level to have water infrastructure included in the stimulus plan. We are certainly hoping to be part of the package.

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Bethesda, Md.: Is it known what caused the rupture? When will repairs be completed?

Jim Neustadt: We do not yet know the cause. We are still trying to determine how long it will take to make repairs.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I just signed up for the WSSC notification system. I was surprised to learn about the break from CNN before I got my Montgomery Alert. Did the WSSC notification program work for this break?

Jim Neustadt: Yes it did. Since you live in Silver Spring, you probably would not be notified of a break in Bethesda.

Let me take this opportunity to encourage everyone to sign up for the Customer Notification System (CNS) at www.wsscwater.com. It's something new we began offering just last month.

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Potomac, Md.: Hi, The water is colored. Is it safe to take a shower with the water? When will clear water appear.

Jim Neustadt: Yes it is safe to shower and it is is also safe to drink. It will clear up within 12-24 hours. We have more information about this on our website. Look under Hot Topics.

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Bethesda, Md.: Please pass on to your hard-working crews how much the local residents appreciate their timely response to this difficult situation!

Jim Neustadt: Thank you and we will pass that along. We appreciate your comments; they do work very hard with the customers in mind.

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Bethesda, Md.: My elderly but healthy parents live in the Kenwood Condominium on River Road: 1. Wwhen do you expect their water come back? 2. When it comes back should the elderly boil their water, too?

Jim Neustadt: Their water should be back running shortly and there is no need for anyone to boil water.

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washingtonpost.com: Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission

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Bethesda, Md.: How can water be safe to drink, but not safe for baby formula or LAUNDRY? Why would I even consider drinking water that's being advertised as not even safe to wash/rinse my clothes? You're sending some mixed signals without much explaination.

Jim Neustadt: Discolored water is caused by sedimentation. It is free of harmful bacteria.

The reason we don't recommend doing laundry is because this can discolor the clothes.

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Anonymous: Where exactly was the break and what portion of River Road is blocked off (from which cross-street to which cross-street)?

Jim Neustadt: River Road is closed between Bradley Blvd and 7 Locks road. the break is just south of Fenway.

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Potomac, Md.: What material is the broken pipe made of?

Jim Neustadt: It is made of PCCP pipe, which stands for Pre-stressed Concrete Cylinder Pipe and consists of concrete, steel cylinder and high-tension wire wrap, which is coated with mortar.

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Ft. Washington, Md.: What is the chance of something like this happening in Southern PG County?

Jim Neustadt: This can happen anywhere. We can say that the way our system is constucted, there are fewer large transmission water mains in Prince George's County.

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washingtonpost.com: Video: Helicopter Rescues Stranded Passengers (Newschannel 8/WJLA-TV7, Dec. 23)

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Northbrook, Ill.: What kind of public works projects will help your infrastructure problems? How big?

Jim Neustadt: This is a huge question. Let me just say replacing water mains is a priority not only here but throughout the country. There are other kinds of projects include that include our entire systems.

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Bethesda, Md.: How does something like this happen? What needs to happen to avoid another mishap?

Jim Neustadt: I want to thank all of you who emailed questions. Everyone should have water back shortly if not already. We apologize for the inconveniences and are grateful that there apparently were no serious injuries to the people trapped in their cars.

We at WSSC wish you all a very happy holiday season.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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