Water line break

City employees work to repair a water line break near the intersection of West Gambier Street and South Sandusky Street on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020.

UPDATE (1:18 p.m. Friday): The citywide boil advisory has been lifted, according to the City of Mount Vernon.

MOUNT VERNON – Mount Vernon residents will likely know by Friday afternoon whether they can resume using city water, or whether the citywide boil advisory will continue for another 24 hours.

Mathias Orndorf, the city’s director of public utilities, said Thursday that water samples had been collected from 20 locations around the city and sent to the water treatment plant on Old Delaware Road, where they were being tested for contamination. The testing process takes approximately 24 hours, Orndorf said.

If all 20 samples come back negative, the boil advisory will be lifted. If one or more samples return positive, the boil advisory will continue and the testing process will start over.

The city issued a boil advisory Wednesday evening after a water line broke on West Gambier Street, just west of the South Sandusky Street intersection. While city officials are unsure exactly what caused the break to occur, Orndorf said age likely played a factor. The 12-inch, cast-iron pipe was installed in 1965.

Broken water line

This photo, provided by the City of Mount Vernon, shows the eight-foot crack in the water line on West Gambier Street that caused this week's citywide boil advisory.

“It’s cast-iron, it’s not ductile, which is what we specify now,” Orndorf explained. “(The engineering department) is actually looking in the records to see how much more of this stuff was put in. Apparently this isn’t the only section of it.”

He also said the city was “running an experiment” that may have contributed to the break. However, given the size of the crack, which was approximately eight feet long, Orndorf said this break had likely been a long time coming. This was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“We do not know exactly why this happened yet,” Orndorf said. “We were running an experiment because we have to figure out how to shut off the reservoir. So we had shut the valve off at the reservoir and were running things a certain way, just to see if we could keep everybody’s pressure where it was supposed to be. We’d had a small pressure drop, so they increased the pressure a little bit – I believe it was 4 PSI (pound per square inch) – which should not have affected this.

“I’m not saying it didn’t or did, I don’t know that yet. We actually had a bunch of gathering information going on because of what we were doing. So we probably will have more information about this break sooner than we’ve ever had before, because we actually just had leak detectors here last week. And I haven’t gotten the survey yet from that, but this could’ve already been leaking and we didn’t even know about it yet, because (the break) was six or eight feet long.

"So it probably did not just happen, but I don’t know that for sure yet. I’m trying to keep an open mind.”

In the meantime, thousands of residents are being advised not to drink or otherwise consume city water. Orndorf said the boil advisory affects approximately 7,300 accounts, including some that serve multiple families (like those at apartment complexes).

The last time Mount Vernon had a citywide boil advisory was “five or six years ago,” Orndorf recalled, when it was used as a brief precautionary measure following testing delays. In his 10 years serving in the city’s utility sector, Orndorf said he’s never seen a citywide boil advisory under these circumstances.

“It’s very inconvenient and I understand that,” Orndorf said. “And it’s very costly, especially for businesses – I mean, we have a lot of businesses that depend on water. This is serious.”

Multiple downtown businesses closed on Thursday due to the boil advisory. Mount Vernon City Schools provided water bottles to its students, as drinking fountains could no longer be used.

The city blocked off the affected portion of West Gambier Street to repair the line, and work is expected to continue into early next week. Mayor Matt Starr said he spoke with nearby business owners, including those at Trail City 4x4, T-Shirt Express and Interchurch Social Services, to communicate the plan and answer questions.

Starr said the city will only reopen the road when it is safe to do so. Given the way asphalt reacts to water, he said the area near the break is “a bit soft” at the moment. Reopening the road too soon could cause an even bigger problem: a sinkhole.

“We’re going to be doing some more diagnostics on the rest of the road there, to just make sure that it’s safe,” Starr said. “There are a lot of cracks up in there and so we’re gonna be very cautious before we open up that road. We just want it to be safe when people get to ride on it.”

Orndorf said the city has been all-hands-on-deck since discovering the water line break Wednesday evening. Employees from the water/wastewater and engineering departments were immediately on the scene, marking utility lines and digging in to find the problem. Once they located the break, workers removed the cracked section of the pipe and replaced it, using rubber clamps on both sides to connect the new line.

City employees worked on the road until 1:30 a.m. Thursday, trying to stop the hemorrhaging.

“There was a lot of overtime involved,” Orndorf said.

While this work took place, Orndorf was on the phone with the Ohio EPA, which is standard protocol after issuing a citywide boil advisory. Orndorf recommended a citywide advisory after assessing the size of the break – eight feet in length – and considering the potential consequences.

“If it’s a smaller leak and if we can keep the pressure above 20 PSI in the pipe, it doesn’t cause a boil advisory. Because that means the water’s going out, nothing’s getting back in. Once you have a leak like this, where you have to shut the water off, it depressurizes the system. If it goes below 20 PSI, that means that something could get back into the pipe possibly. It does not guarantee it, but there is the chance that it will happen,” Orndorf explained.

“Not only did we depressurize where this pipe was, but we lost so much water through here that … we lost pressure in the pressure zone at numerous places (throughout the city). That’s why the boil advisory was put citywide.”

The size of the break – and the amount of leaking that ensued – prevented the boil advisory from being isolated to one area of the community, Orndorf said. It became a citywide issue for precautionary reasons.

“If we had a way of isolating the Wooster Road section, if we could’ve isolated it and lasted 24 hours, there wouldn’t have had to be (a citywide advisory),” Orndorf said. “Or the east side could’ve been the same way. We did not have enough residual water – I did not believe that we had enough to do that.”

“Better safe than sorry,” Starr added.

Its unclear at the moment how much this water line break will cost the city. Aside from overtime pay for its workers, Starr said the city will need to foot the bill for the new pipe and asphalt. He said the city's most recent infrastructure emergency, when a sanitary sewer line collapsed near Liberty Street in April, cost approximately $200,000.

"That was not budgeted this year," Starr said. "You've gotta take care of the emergencies."

The city's engineering department is currently conducting research to determine how much pipe from this era is left in Mount Vernon. Starr said the city is currently either involved in or moving toward several major infrastructure repair projects, including replacing aging water lines on the north end.

"There’s a lot of breaks in that area," he said. "We’re tired of doing patch after patch after patch. We want to get this yanked out and put back."

Knox Public Health advised local residents to remain vigilant Thursday and follow the boil advisory to prevent sickness.

“When a pressurized municipal waterline breaks, the lack of water pressure and the opening in the waterline enables surface water and other debris to enter the waterline. This could include dirt, animal droppings, food waste, plus natural-occurring bacteria in the soil such as E.coli,” KPH spokeswoman Pam Palm said in a statement.

“When you boil the water for at least one minute, these impurities are reduced to an acceptable level for consumption.”

Residents should avoid using city water in any form, Palm added, until the boil advisory is lifted.

“The ban on water use affects not just the water that comes out of any household faucet,” she said. “Residents should also not use ice makers or water dispensers in a refrigerator since they are connected to household water lines. Bottled water should be used for automatic coffee makers, such as a Keurig, because in most cases, these units do not heat water to the necessary temperature or length of time.”

Until the boil advisory is lifted, residents are advised to use bottled water to brush their teeth and take medications. Bathing is permissible in most cases, KPH stated, as long as residents use soap and avoid getting water in their mouth or eyes.

When the boil advisory is lifted, Orndorf said residents may see changes in their water's complexion. It may appear murky due to increased air and micro-bubbles, and it may contain traces of rust.

"They may see a little bit of this," he said. "And it’s gonna be in restricted areas, it’s not gonna be citywide.”

Residents are advised to let their water run briefly before using it again, Orndorf said. This will allow it to return to its normal consistency.

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Staff Reporter

Grant is a 2018 graduate of Ohio Northern University, where he studied journalism and played basketball. He likes coffee, books and minor league baseball. He loves telling stories and has a passion for local news.