A nearly catastrophic water main break in Dayton’s water system caused widespread chaos for hundreds of thousands of residents and business owners this week — an incident that gives a glimpse into the vulnerabilities facing the region’s top natural resource.
The water main break on Wednesday night spilled at least 100 million gallons of treated water into the Great Miami River, forcing businesses and schools to close across Montgomery County. A boil advisory was put into effect by the city and county to protect people against unsafe drinking water.
The impacted line was located in the Great Miami River, and officials say they won’t know what caused the problem until the river levels subside and crews can inspect the 36-inch line.
Water main breaks are fairly common and tend to inconvenience residents and property owners, but they can result in serious water emergencies — threatening the quality of the drinking water supply due to spills and chemical pollution.
“Our antiquated water infrastructure poses a direct threat to our health and civilization,” said Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech scientist and water expert who helped expose water problems in Flint, Mich.
Breaking water mains can flood entire neighborhoods, contaminate drinking water, mobilize harmful sediment and bacteria and undermine consumer confidence, he said.
New details emerge about main break
While water crews located the break and boil advisories were lifted by Friday afternoon, questions linger about the long-term effects of the incident. Dickstein said the city suffered a “massive lost” of water, more than four times the daily distribution amount — starting with approximately 2.5 million gallons in 10 minutes.
The city would not specify where exactly the break occurred, but Dickstein said it was in the northwest region — likely near Needmore Road and North Dixie Drive because that’s where pressure was impacted.
The main line that broke was a 28-year-old pipe made of concrete — relatively new infrastructure for the city. Dayton measures water pressure by pounds per square inch, referred to as PSI. Typically, water pressure remains between 100 to 125 PSI. During the main break event, pressure dipped down to 50 PSI, city officials said.
By Friday evening, the city was still unable to find a cause for the break due to the river’s high levels. The city did not have a cost estimate of the “unprecedented” incident, and officials could not determine if it would impact rate payers in the future.
Dickstein said the city’s sampling protocol tests for an array of contaminants including lead, bacteria and other impurities. The team was mostly focused on testing for bacteria during the incident, Dickstein said during a news conference. Main line breaks can cause major issues for water utilities.
The World Health Organization says that a breakage in a water main line could result in serious microbial or chemical contamination. Taste and odor reports from consumers may indicate potential hazards associated with water distribution systems and should be investigated; however, they typically do not relate to actual hazards.”
Dickstein said it was not clear what will need to occur when they go to fix the break. Dickstein did not know how many service lines were connected to the main line.
Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley said the city takes water safety very seriously and the city has and will continue to make sizable investments in its water system. The city estimates that it has spent more than $100 million on its water infrastructure in the last nine years.
Whaley said the city has far fewer breaks than most municipal water systems, but disruptions are unavoidable. The city had 111 water main breaks and 24 leaks in 2018 up through the third quarter.
Miami Valley’s past fraught with water issues
This isn’t the first issue to plague local water systems in the region. Within the past year, the city of Dayton and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base dealt with high levels of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in parts of the water supplies on and off base.
Initially, the EPA believed Wright-Patterson was the “only known source” of contamination caused from firefighting foam contaminants in the Mad River well field. Then in February 2018, the city determined that Dayton’s firefighter training center on McFadden Avenue was also a potential source of groundwater contamination.
The retardant that produces PFAS was sprayed at both Wright-Patterson and Dayton’s firefighting training center.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — known regularly as PFAS — are a group of man-made chemicals that include different types of substances including PFOA, PFOS, GenX and others. PFAS can be found in some firefighting foams, household products like water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products like Teflon, waxes, polishes, and even some food packaging, according to the EPA.
PFAS contamination, at certain levels, can cause major health concerns. According to the U.S. EPA, human epidemiology and animal testing studies indicate high-level exposure to the contaminant may lead to:
• Testicular and liver cancer
• Changes in cholesterol
• Low birth weight in newborns
• Liver tissue damage
• Effects on the immune system and thyroid
PFAS contaminants remain an unresolved issue in water supplies nationwide. The U.S. EPA announced last week that it is implementing its “first-ever comprehensive” nationwide PFAS Action Plan, which the agency says would address contaminants impacting water sources.
The EPA is moving forward with the maximum contaminant level (MCL) process outlined in the Safe Drinking Water Act for PFOA and PFOS—two of the most well-known and prevalent PFAS chemicals. It would likely be months to years before any standard is set.
Lead in water
Local water supplies have also been threatened by increased levels of lead. In June 2016, water samples at the Miami Valley Hospital tested five to 10 times above the EPA’s guideline for lead amounts. The elevated levels were found in three buildings on the hospital’s campus.
The source of the lead contamination was linked to a main line replacement conducted by the city’s water department. A road construction project on Warren and Brown streets near the hospital likely disturbed the sediment, officials said. The federal guidelines state lead levels must be under 15 parts per billion, and the water samples at the hospital tested within the range of 15 to 220 parts per billion.
The incident led to a Dayton Daily News investigation, which found that infrastructure replacement practices may be having the unintended consequence of exposing residents to dangerous levels of lead.
Public water systems for decades have been engaged in the expensive process of replacing their aging mains and service lines. But in most cases the replacements don’t include the connecting pipes that run on private property — and are made of lead. That means new lines are running water into the existing lines that run into homes and businesses in the region, many of them older structures.
Critics say these partial replacements can increase lead levels in these structures, and they say public officials aren’t doing enough to alert people to the dangers of exposure.
Failing infrastructure puts the health of its customers at risk and also can severely impact the economy, said Robert Powelson, president and CEO of the National Association of Water Companies. Businesses can’t operate — let alone thrive — without reliable water service, he said.
Unfortunately, the situation in Dayton is not unique, because communities across the country have water infrastructure that is in dire need of investment, Powelson said. When the American Society of Civil Engineers released its Infrastructure Report Card in 2017, it rated drinking water systems a “D,” citing an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States.
The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates Ohio’s drinking water systems need about $12.2 billion in investment in the next 20 years. Ohio regulations require public water systems to be prepared for a variety of emergencies, and Dayton followed the rules and responded quickly to valve off the broken water line and worked with Montgomery County to restore service, said Dina Pierce, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
Pierce said breaks are common and typically are repaired within hours or days. She said the Ohio EPA considers the loss of source water or the failure of a water treatment plant to be the biggest threats to water systems.
About 1,620 cases of water were distributed Thursday from three sites in Montgomery County, according to the Dayton Area Chapter of the American Red Cross. Many people bought bottled water in bulk from local stores.
“All infrastructure is critical to the success and vitality of our country, but safe, reliable water service is essential to life, and we can no longer afford to defer investment in our nation’s water systems,” Powelson said.
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