The Orange Water and Sewer Authority said Monday it has hired outside engineering consultants to investigate the fluoride overfeed and water main break that caused the utility to bar customers from using its water for nearly two days.
OWASA still does not know the exact cause of the problems, though executive director Ed Kerwin said there is no indication of foul play or that the two events were connected.
On Thursday night, OWASA will present a preliminary report during a meeting that begins at 6 p.m. in the Council Chamber at Chapel Hill Town Hall, 405 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Community members may comment at the meeting or send comments in advance to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Andrea Orbich, Clerk to the Board, 400 Jones Ferry Road, Carrboro, NC 27510.
The problems began last Thursday afternoon when a fluoride pump at the Jones Ferry Road Water Treatment Plant began pumping up to 6 parts per million of fluoride into the water at the plant, which was more than eight times greater than the targeted 0.7 parts per million.
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Fluoride is added to water to prevent tooth decay. The utility stressed the over-fluoridated water, which was later pumped into the sewer system for treatment, did not go out to customers.
Kerwin said workers discovered the pump was adding too much fluoride at 3 p.m. Thursday and the plant was immediately shut down. By 5 p.m., OWASA began receiving water from Durham and had asked Hillsborough and Chatham County to also send emergency water.
The other investigation will look at how a 45-year-old water main on Foxcroft Drive broke, which caused 1.5 million gallons of water to leak and brought water storage levels and pressure to critical lows. That spill started at 10 a.m. Friday and was stopped by 11:30 a.m.
OWASA has a total water capacity of 8 million gallons, and if storage levels get below 2.4 million gallons, or 30 percent of capacity, it calls for conservation measures. Storage varies at any given time of day, but 6.5 million gallons is considered normal, Kerwin said.
Water storage was at 3 million gallons Friday morning when the water-main break brought storage down to 1.8 million gallons, or 22.5 percent of capacity, which Kerwin said was a dangerous level.
The break also torpedoed water pressure, a health concern because without pressure, harmful bacteria can more easily grow in the mains. OWASA could not determine how far the water-pressure problems spread in its service area, so the blanket order to not use water was given to the entire OWASA customer area.
Kerwin didn’t know how much the water emergency cost OWASA. Its agreement with Durham allows for shared water to be either repaid in an exchange of water at a later date or in cash, and that cost would be passed onto ratepayers.
Kerwin added that Durham sent 6 million to 7 million gallons, which was just under OWASA water demand at the time. By 5 p.m. on Friday, around 200,000 gallons of water arrived from Chatham County and by that evening water storage levels reached 3 million gallons.
Over Friday night and into Saturday morning, OWASA worked to restart the Jones Ferry Road plant after fixing the fluoride issue. By 2 p.m. Saturday tests showed that water at the plant was normal and the water ban was lifted.
By 6:30 p.m. Saturday, the Jones Ferry Road plant was pumping water again and no more water was being sent from Durham and Chatham County. The water storage level was back at a normal level of 6.5 million gallons of water.
Cost to businesses
The two-day shutdown cost local restaurants and other businesses several million dollars, said Aaron Nelson, president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, which is helping businesses file insurance claims.
“A health care facility just told me the financial losses devastated them,” he said. “They closed five health center locations, and the financial impact was extraordinary in terms of lost appointments.”
Nelson said communication about what was going on and how businesses should respond could have been better. Updated information also wasn’t available to thousands of workers who commute into the county, he said.
“If 50 percent of the people who work in Chapel Hill live somewhere else, this means they’re not in OWASA’s email system,” Nelson said. “The residents of our community got communication, but the workers of our community and the employers … just did not, because they’re not.”
Hotel employees worked to find other accommodations for guests in Raleigh, Durham and Greensboro, or to reschedule their reservations to start on Sunday, said Jay Patel, general manager of The Franklin Hotel. Insurance will cover the hotel’s losses, he said.
“The health department ordered all the restaurants and hotels to shut down on Friday afternoon, so we just had to be flexible and do the best we could,” Patel said.
In addition to UNC basketball game visitors, the water shortage also cost the Carolina Inn revenue from the 2017 Orange Chatham Association of Realtors Inaugural Ball. The event was moved to the Washington Duke Inn in Durham on Saturday.
Water emergency timeline
3 p.m. Thursday: Workers detect high levels of fluoride being pumped into the Jones Ferry Road Water Treatment Plant, and the plant is immediately shut down.
5 p.m. Thursday: Emergency water from Durham begins flowing into OWASA system.
10: a.m. Friday: Water main breaks at Dobbins Drive in northeast Chapel Hill, causing a 1.5 million-gallon water leak. OWASA has 3 million gallons of water in storage right before the leak.
11 a.m. Friday: Orange County Health Department issues do not drink and do not use directives, after the leak causes water pressure to get low enough for the possibility of bacteria to contaminate the water.
11:30 a.m. Friday: Water leak at Dobbins Drive stopped.
1 p.m. Friday: OWASA water storage levels reach a low of 1.8 million gallons, which is 22.5 percent of capacity — anything below 30 percent triggers conservation warning.
5 p.m. Friday: Chatham County sends 200,000 gallons of water, and water storage levels rebound to 3 million gallons that evening. OWASA employees work to reset Jones Ferry Road plant.
2 p.m. Saturday: Tests show water is safe to use and the water ban is lifted.
6:30 p.m. Saturday: Jones Ferry Road Water Treatment Plant pumps start again. No more water coming from Durham and Chatham County.