It will be at least late Saturday or Sunday before OWASA will know whether its drinking water is safe and customers in Chapel Hill and Carrboro can start using it again, officials said Friday.
A broken water pipe discovered Friday morning leaked up to 1.5 million gallons after a fluoride overfeed at the Jones Ferry Road Water Treatment Plant on Thursday forced OWASA to start getting water from Durham.
That water is going into storage tanks until OWASA can make sure its water is safe and can refill its tanks to provide sufficient pressure to operate the system.
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That will take “at least one or two days,” spokesman Greg Feller said Friday evening. “We do not have an estimate.”
The towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro declared a state of emergency Friday afternoon.
The declaration allows emergency steps to be taken and funding to be used where needed, officials said. It also is the first step in seeking state and federal support, if necessary.
Town and county officials are working to bring bottled water and portable toilets to local shelters and public housing and senior housing residents, who may not be able to bring in their own emergency supplies. Residents may also donate bottled water by bringing it to the Chapel Hill Community Center at 120 S. Estes Drive.
Harris Teeter said Friday evening that water would be available free at three Chapel Hill stores and one in Carrboro. One- or three-gallon jugs would be limited to three per person, the grocery chain said.
Orange County Health Department Director Colleen Bridger ordered all restaurants to close Friday afternoon. She stressed that OWASA customers should use only bottled water until further notice.
“Do not drink the water. Do not use it for personal hygiene,” Bridger said at a press conference Friday afternoon. “Do not use it under any circumstance.”
Residents with questions can call Orange County emergency officials at 919-245-6111, send a text message to 888777 with the phrase “owasawater” in the message line, and get updates on Twitter @ocncemergency.
Hillsborough, which has its own water supply system, was not affected by the shutdown. Officials also issued news releases Friday advising that Orange County Schools, Durham County and Chatham County were not affected.
Hillsborough officials have asked their water customers, however, to conserve water as the town is working to provide water to OWASA.
Water main break
Orange Water and Sewer Authority officials asked customers around noon Friday to stop using water after discovering the broken 45-year-old water main on Dobbins Drive in northeast Chapel Hill.
OWASA issued an earlier notice asking customers to limit their water usage because supplies were low.
OWASA is working to restore the Jones Ferry Road Water Treatment Plant to normal operation, and crews are working to repair the pipe, which cut water service to 250 customers in the immediate area, OWASA executive director Ed Kerwin said.
Other Orange County fire departments will deliver water to Chapel Hill and Carrboro fire departments in tankers if there’s a fire, Chapel Hill Emergency Management Coordinator Barry McLamb said.
UNC Hospitals has a limited backup water supply.
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and UNC closed early Friday. The university asked students who live on campus to consider leaving for the weekend.
The water shortage has moved Saturday’s scheduled UNC-Notre Dame men’s basketball game to 1 p.m. Sunday at the Greensboro Coliseum. The game will not be televised.
Chapel Hill and East Chapel Hill high schools postponed their Friday night basketball games, and Carrboro has moved Saturday’s wrestling championship match to Northwood High School in Pittsboro.
OWASA began getting its water from Durham when the fluoride overfeed forced it to shut down the Jones Ferry Road plant, its only drinking water plant.
“We don’t know whether it was equipment error. We don’t know if it was human error or both,” Kerwin said. “That is certainly something we need to get to the bottom of.”
The utility stressed the overfluoridated water was contained at the plant and did not go out to customers.
Fluoride is added to water to prevent tooth decay.
Though its use is controversial and some European countries do not add it to their water supplies, “the reality is fluoride is the 13th most common element in the earth’s crust,” said Dr. Tim Wright, chairman of the department of pediatric dentistry at the UNC School of Dentistry.
“It’s a naturally occurring element” already present in water and many of the foods we eat, he said.
Federal guidelines updated in 2011 recommend adding 0.7 parts per million of fluoride to water supplies to prevent dental caries, the process of demineralization of the teeth that can lead to cavities or holes in the teeth.
This is the amount that OWASA normally adds, Wright said.
The problem at the water treatment plant was adding up to 5 parts per million to the water.
At 2 and 3 parts per million, chronic or long-term fluoride exposure can damage tooth formation prenatally and in children up to teenagers, Wright said.
At 4 parts per million, fluoride has been associated with hip fractures in post-menopausal women, he said.
But Wright said it takes years of exposure to high levels of fluoride for most people to see such effects. Even people who drink fluoridated water, use fluoride toothpaste and get fluoride treatments at the dentist are not getting enough of it to cause problems, he said
Durham is supplying OWASA with about 6 million gallons per day, with additional water set to come from Hillsborough once the pipe connecting the systems is cleaned out, Feller said.
Until OWASA’s tanks return to normal levels, the utility has told customers to use bottled water for drinking, cooking and personal hygiene.
Customers also can use bottled water to flush toilets, after pouring water into the tank. If a toilet does not have a tank, it may be possible to pour water into the bowl before flushing.
Canceled & closing
These are just some of the cancellations and closings reported Friday:
▪ Chapel Hill-Carrboro YMCA after-school programs
▪ Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools closing early: Elementary, releasing at 1:30 p.m.; middle school at 2:10 p.m.; high school at 2:55 p.m.
▪ Chapel Hill Public Library and Parks and Recreation facilities are closed
▪ Hargraves Center is holding afterschool activities, but parents are asked to pick up their children as early as possible
▪ The Chapel Hill License Plate Agency is closed
▪ Seymour Center is closed