Chapel Hill News

OWASA apologizes for southern Orange County water emergency, reconsiders fluoride

OWASA says water in Chapel Hill-Carrboro-UNC safe again

A broken water main discovered in February leaked up to 1.5 million gallons of water a day after the utility began getting water from Durham following a fluoride overfeed at its drinking water plant.
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A broken water main discovered in February leaked up to 1.5 million gallons of water a day after the utility began getting water from Durham following a fluoride overfeed at its drinking water plant.

Reports on the overfluoridation of water at the Jones Ferry Road Water Treatment Plant and a water main break that caused a southern Orange County water emergency will be released Friday afternoon.

In its first meeting since more than 80,000 customers in Chapel Hill and Carrboro went without water last weekend, the Orange Water and Sewer Authority Board of Directors met Thursday night to go over the events that led to the water shortage.

“I’d like to begin with a sincere apology for the water service disruption this past week,” Chairman John Young said. “We know it’s a big deal, and that is why we cleared the discussion for tonight except for this single topic. … For the residents, the businesses, the employees who might have been impacted here and for the thousands of visitors as well, we apologize for the disruption of service. I also want to express our appreciation to outstanding response and capabilities to our community partners.”

A “worst-case scenario” occurred when the Jones Ferry Road Water Treatment Plant had to be shut down on Thursday, Feb. 2 after the water became over-fluoridated, followed by one of the worst water main breaks in OWASA’s history the next morning. The double whammy forced the public, nonprofit agency to enact a water ban for more than 80,000 customers, mostly in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, for nearly two days.

One of the more than dozen speakers Thursday was Hannah Herzog, whose apartment was damaged by water from the main break.

“I am here to share with you all tonight our difficult situation in the hope that you will hear us,” she said. “Our apartment unit is in terrible condition and we were forced to evacuate and get a hotel. Due to the amount of repairs that need to be done we are having to move into a whole new unit.”

Herzog said she and others have renters insurance but were told this type of incident was not covered. Some board members said they intended to get in contact with community organizations that may be able to assist people in the short-term until insurance agents have investigated.

OWASA General Counsel Robert Epting said OWASA is only responsible for losses if it is proven negligent, something that would be determined by the N.C. League of Municipalities insurance adjusters. OWASA is not permitted, per state law, to pay those who experienced a loss that was not deemed negligible.

Fluoride concerns

Several of the speakers expressed dismay and frustration with the addition of fluoride to their water and asked why the chemical was being added and what caused the over-fluoridated water.

Board members said fluoride is no longer being added to OWASA’s water and a full-review of all of its fluoride-related policies and a public meeting would be held before fluoride is added back to the water, if it will be added back at all.

OWASA officials discovered the over-fluoridated water – fluoride is added to water to prevent tooth decay, but the plant was pumping more than 6 parts per million or eight times more than the targeted 0.7 parts per million – at 3 p.m. Feb. 2 and the plant was shut down.

All of the over-fluoridated water was contained to the plant and OWASA began receiving water from the City of Durham by 5 p.m. Feb. 2. It was then that OWASA asked customers to conserve water.

The water system has a capacity of 8 million gallons and if storage levels get below 2.4 million gallons, conservation measures are called for. A normal level of water storage varies given time of day, season and other factors, but 6.5 million gallons of water is considered normal.

The water storage levels were at 3 million gallons Feb. 3 when OWASA lost 1.5 million gallons when a 45-year-old water main broke at Foxcroft Drive. With only 1.8 million gallons on Saturday, Feb. 4, the water pressure tanked, which makes it easier for harmful bacteria to grow in the pipes, and a blanket do not use and do not consume orders were issued.

Nonprofits, businesses, government entities and community members rallied Friday, Feb. 3 to accept water donations and set up water distribution sites throughout the day Feb. 4.

Some of the other next steps for OWASA that were presented in the meeting included reviewing emergency communication practices, develop near-term and long-term measures to improve system resiliency and “develop corrective action plan to ensure fluoride feed system performs reliably.”

The board of directors did vote to commend OWASA staff for its response after the water shortage at the end of Thursday’s meeting.

Johnson: 919-419-6675;

Twitter: @anna_m_johnson.

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