20,000 told to boil water after main breaks

Feb. 20, 2014 @ 07:15 AM

Roughly 20,000 water customers across Caldwell County temporarily lost water service from Tuesday night into Wednesday after a main water line in Lenoir broke Tuesday night, and they are being told to boil any tap water they intend to drink or use for cooking or washing dishes.

But some residents were alternately upset and confused because the boil-water advisory wasn't issued until well after 8 a.m., nearly two hours after a press release saying that the first water after service was restored would be safe, and the advisory later was revised to apply only to customers who had lost water service.

The city sent water samples to be tested for bacteria, a process that takes 24 hours, and the boil advisory may be lifted by mid-morning today, said Radford Thomas, director of Lenoir's Department of Public Utilities.

Crews from Airo Cable Construction, a contractor based in Jacksonville, Fla., were digging trenches along Connelly Springs Road to lay fiber optic cable when they hit a water line for a fire hydrant near Andrews Circle, said Lane Bailey, Lenoir's city manager. That line connected the hydrant to a high-pressure, 24-inch main line, and while crews worked to make repairs on it “the whole line blew out” about 8 p.m.

Much of Lenoir, including areas near downtown, was spared any interruption in water service because they are served by a separate low-pressure water system, Bailey said. The high-pressure system serves not only portions of Lenoir but also customers in the Baton, Sawmills, Cajah's Mountain, Gamewell and Hudson areas.

Crews worked through the night to repair the line and completed the work just before 6 a.m.

A press release sent out shortly after 6:30 a.m. by LouAnne Kincaid, Caldwell County's public information officer, said that residents should turn on their faucets to purge air from the system but mentioned no danger of bacterial contamination. The press release quoted Thomas as saying that "the first water to come through their faucets will likely be dingy but is safe to use."

Shortly after 8 a.m., however, Lenoir issued an advisory for water customers to boil all water intended for drinking, making ice, brushing teeth, washing dishes, and food preparation, or to use bottled water. About mid-day, the city clarified the advisory to say that only those who lost water service needed to boil their water.

When a water system's pressure drops, water can flow backward from plumbing systems in houses and buildings into the main water lines, which could allow bacteria into the system. Muddy water could also have seeped into the main line during its repair. Boiling water for one minute kills any bacteria in the water.

Thomas said Wednesday afternoon that the boil-water advisory was issued after the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources reviewed details of the incident Wednesday morning and recommended it as a precaution.

"We regret the inconvenience that it's caused, but it's just one of those things that happens in this business," Thomas said. "We want to make sure we're providing good, clean, safe water and want to go through these steps to make sure."

Though repairs to the line were completed just before 6 a.m., crews were opening hydrants throughout the day to flush the lines, and that work meant reduced water pressure and still no water service for some customers into Wednesday afternoon. A press release from Caldwell County at 4:30 p.m. said that service had been restored to all customers, though flushing was going to continue into today.

Caldwell County Schools operated on a three-hour delay Wednesday, although Granite Falls Elementary School, Granite Falls Middle School and South Caldwell High School are on the water system operated by the Town of Granite Falls and were not affected by the water problem. Cafeteria workers were told by the school administration to wash fruits and vegetables with boiled water, said Libby Brown, community services director.

School officials decided at 9:45 a.m. Wednesday to close Baton Elementary School, about four miles away from the water main break, for the entire day. The make-up day has been scheduled for Saturday to start at the normal time but to release at 11:40 a.m.

Bailey said that city officials do not yet have an estimate of the cost of repairs to the water system, but the city will hold Airo responsible and seek reimbursement. The locations of the underground water lines had been marked for the company to avoid, he said.

Max Prestwood Water and Sewer was brought in as a contractor, bringing heavy equipment in and working alongside city crews through the night. Contractor services and overtime will drive up the project’s cost, Bailey said.

The repair work also fouled the Wednesday morning commute for some because a portion of Connelly Springs Road was closed to traffic. The road opened later Wednesday.