EDITOR'S NOTE: This is Part 1 of a two-part series on Mount Vernon's water-line issues. Part 2, discussing what can be done to prevent this from happening again, will be published on Nov. 21.
MOUNT VERNON – Mount Vernon has experienced two citywide boil advisories in the past month – more than city officials say it experienced the entire decade prior.
The advisories, issued Oct. 14 and Nov. 3, have impacted residents, businesses and schools. They have cost the city thousands of dollars in water-line repairs and prevention efforts.
According to city officials, both advisories occurred under similar circumstances.
Both resulted from breaks in the same water line: a 12-inch pipe that runs along West Gambier Street. The first break – an eight-foot crack – occurred near the South Sandusky Street intersection; the second, similarly sized, occurred near the South Mulberry Street intersection, less than a quarter-mile away.
City Utilities Director Mathias Orndorf said this pipe was installed in 1965 and is made of cast-iron, which is less durable than the ductile material specified for modern water lines. The pipe was rated for 60 years of use, Mayor Matt Starr added, and it’s been 55.
According to Starr, this aging pipe cracked twice during the same testing procedure.
The city has long needed to repair its New Gambier Road reservoir, Starr said, which was built in 1952 and holds roughly two million gallons of water. The reservoir has valves that need repaired, and it could potentially have other deficiencies, Starr said, due to its age.
“We’ve got to get inside the tank and poke around and see what needs to be repaired,” Starr explained. “To do that, you need to empty the tank.”
Emptying the reservoir will naturally cause the city’s water pressure to fluctuate, Starr said. The city expected this when it did so on Oct. 14 and Nov. 3 – a slight water-pressure increase, but nothing that would lead to infrastructural damage.
What they did not realize, however, is that some of the city’s pipes were already leaking due to old age. A pressure increase – even a slight one – would be the straw that broke the camel’s back. That was the case on West Gambier Street.
“When they install these pipes, they pressure-test them up to 250 PSI (pounds per square inch), and we usually only run them about 80 or 90 PSI. So pipes should be able to withstand the tests we’re running,” Safety-Service Director Richard Dzik said.
“Unfortunately, when there’s already some pipes that have some defect in them, it just worsens it. So unfortunately, as we were preparing for this eventual reservoir project ... some of the existing leaks and things are presenting some challenges.”
In both instances, city officials became aware of the breaks shortly after the testing began. Orndorf recommended citywide boil advisories both times because of the size of the breaks, and the amount of water lost as a result. This rapid loss of water causes depressurization in the city’s system, Orndorf said, which can lead to possible contamination.
“If it’s a smaller leak and if we can keep the pressure above 20 PSI (pounds per square inch) in the pipe, it doesn’t cause a boil advisory. Because that means the water’s going out, nothing’s getting back in,” Orndorf explained.
“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.
“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.”
After both breaks, city employees worked overtime to stop the hemorrhaging. They dug into West Gambier Street to locate the broken sections of pipe and replace them. The next day, water samples were collected from various locations across the city, and they were sent to the Mount Vernon wastewater plant for testing.
The samples came back negative for contamination both times, allowing the boil advisories to be lifted less than 48 hours after they began.
These emergencies cost the city $100,000 in street and sidewalk repairs, City Engineer Brian Ball said. They impacted 7,300 water accounts, including those serving schools and businesses. Some local shops, including those near the water-line breaks, had to close temporarily.
In his 10 years working for the city, Orndorf said Oct. 14 was his first time having to issue boil advisories under these circumstances. The city issued one five years ago after cleaning the clear well (test samples arrived back late, so the city decided to issue a boil advisory as a precautionary measure); it had not, to Orndorf’s recollection, issued one lately due to depressurization.
“It’s very inconvenient and I understand that,” Orndorf said, following the first boil advisory. “And it’s very costly, especially for businesses – I mean, we have a lot of businesses that depend on water. This is serious.”
What’s preventing this from happening again?
Unfortunately for the city, the factors that caused the first two citywide boil advisories persist.
The line that snapped twice runs 1.77 miles, according to Starr, traversing the heart of Mount Vernon’s downtown business district. But it isn’t the only old pipe in the city.
“We have cast-iron pipe out there that was put in before 1900,” Orndorf said.
Aging infrastructure plagues various portions of Mount Vernon, Starr said, leaving open the possibility for future leaks – and future boil advisories. The city is currently in the midst of several infrastructure projects aimed at solving the problem. Aging water lines on the city’s north end are being replaced, and the city is now contracting for leak inspections in certain areas (including West Gambier Street).
Still, Starr said, these fixes are merely a drop in the bucket compared to the larger, more existential issue. There are roughly 400 miles of linear water lines in the city, he explained. Even if the city spent a million dollars each year replacing portions of that – given current construction costs – it would still take hundreds of years to reach every water line in the city.
“We’d be asking some water lines to last about 360 years. That’s just not going to happen,” Starr said. “So we’ve gotta come up with a better plan.”
Starr said the city is currently collecting data to determine which water lines are in urgent need of repair. The city’s utilities commission is “taking a hard look” at water/wastewater tax rates, Starr added, and could be recommending changes soon to meet the need.
These actions will complement proactive measures the city is already taking to improve its underground infrastructure. The city recently began a year-round valve-maintenance program, ensuring all of the city’s 1,000-plus water-line valves are tested for defects; it’s also now replacing old water lines with new, ductile pipe, which is rated for 100 years of use (as opposed to the 60 years guaranteed from the old material).
“We’re collecting a lot of data,” Starr said. “We’ve gotta have a way to replace this old infrastructure.”
The city also cannot ignore its aging New Gambier Road reservoir, which still needs repairs done to ensure its longevity. So far, both times the city has tried to inspect the reservoir, it has caused a water-line break.
Starr said the city is looking to purchase valves that would be installed on the West Gambier Street water line. This would allow the city to isolate portions of the line while reservoir testing occurred, preventing future breaks. There are currently only three valves for the entire 1.77-mile line, Starr explained, whereas normally there would be valves every three or four blocks.
“We’re looking into how we can get in there to isolate that water line, so we don’t have to go under a citywide boil advisory again,” Starr said.
Each valve will likely cost $40,000, Starr said. It’s unclear how many the city will need.
“There’s no way to reduce the price,” Starr said. “We’re gonna be fine, and we’ll find a way to move money around to be able to take care of this.”
If the city is able to isolate this water line and proceed with reservoir inspections, it will be able to determine what needs repaired in the reservoir before bidding out the project. This will save the city money, Starr said, as it will allow for more specific recommendations.
“We’re trying to save money, trying to do diagnostics right now so we can lay down more clear expectations in terms of price and what we’re looking at,” he said.
Between the leak inspections, data collection and valve replacements, Starr said the city is taking a multi-pronged approach to preventing another infrastructure emergency. While he did not know when the city might test the reservoir again, he said the city would notify residents “24 hours in advance” via Knox Alerts, social media and the city’s website.
“We’ve got a lot of balls in the air right now on this …” Starr said. “We’ve got a lot of fixing to do, but we’ll get there.”