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Inspectors Were Present When Bethesda Water Main Was Installed Improperly

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By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Regional water officials said yesterday that they have determined inspectors were on the scene more than 40 years ago when the large water main on River Road that broke in December was improperly installed against jagged rock. But they still do not know how broad installation problems might be systemwide.

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According to a consultant's report, the faulty installation of the pipe caused last year's major rupture, which flooded the road in Bethesda, stranding motorists and leading to dramatic televised rescues.

In a briefing, Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission officials sought to reassure Montgomery County Council members that even if the installation practice was widespread, they are continuing to put technology in place to create an early warning system.

"I can't definitively say this was isolated, short of going out there and digging it all up," Teresa D. Daniell, the WSSC's interim general manager, said after the council session. But with robust inspection and monitoring, she said, "at least we have the eyes and ears we need."

The briefing by officials of the utility that provides water and sewer services to 1.8 million people in Montgomery and Prince George's counties offered little comfort to some council members.

"The fact that there were inspectors who turned a blind eye suggests this may have been part of the culture," said council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), who represents the River Road area.

The consultant's report, released last month, said a contractor laid the 66-inch-diameter concrete pipe against rock without the required bed of gravel used to prevent tears and corrosion.

Gary J. Gumm, the WSSC's chief engineer, said he has reviewed records from 1965 that confirm that the contractor was George Tripp Inc. The utility does not yet know how many other sections of pipe the contractor installed. George Tripp, who sold the company 15 years ago, has told The Washington Post that he didn't think the pipe would have been installed against rock and that there would have been an inspector watching "the whole time."

The records also show that the utility's inspectors were present when the pipe was laid, Gumm said. The WSSC is still looking for more detailed reports that might describe what inspectors did or did not observe.

Council members seized on Gumm's testimony that the River Road pipe was last inspected in 1998 when the utility found the "beginnings of a problem" and slated the pipe for reinspection in 10 years, which did not happen.

Last month, members of the Montgomery and Prince George's county councils approved a WSSC budget that, in addition to raising water and sewer service rates by 9 percent starting next month, adds $1 million above the utility's total funding request to repair the system's largest water mains.

WSSC officials yesterday outlined their plan to inspect and monitor by fiscal 2013 all of the system's larger concrete pipes like the one on River Road that can break without warning and cause widespread damage.

The plan seeks to shorten the period between inspections from 12 years to six and prioritize pipes near large population centers and schools.

Council members asked what assurances the utility could give ratepayers.

"You're asking for a guarantee on safety. As an engineer, I certainly can't give you that," Gumm said. "I can tell you we've got this laid out as aggressively as we can."

Staff writer Katherine Shaver contributed to this report.

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