Dirty Water Prompts Fight Over Who's To Pay For New Pipes

September 22, 1991|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Staff writer

Dorothy Zeun won't drink the water at her place anymore -- she's seen it come out of the pipes dark brown one too many times.

Even when the water's clear, she drinks bottled water, preferring not to takea chance on what might be in her county-provided water.

And when she washes clothes, she checks first to make sure the water is clear. She almost ruined her daughter's nursing uniforms once when she didn't check and the white uniforms came out covered with dark brown stains.

Over the years, Zeun and her family have learned to live with the dark brown water they get at their house, on average, at least once a month. But that doesn't mean they like it.

"It stinks," she said, when asked about water service in her neighborhood."This has been going on for at least 10 years. They keep saying they'll do something about it and they don't."

The Zeuns, residents ofPatsy Avenue in Glen Burnie for 37 years, are not alone.

Hundredsof families living in older neighborhoods in North County and the Broadneck Peninsula area have or probably soon will experience similar problems.

Thomas Nevin, a resident of Stewart Avenue in Glen Burnie since 1955, said his family has two water-related problems: not only do they get dirty water regularly, but they also have extremely weak water pressure.

"If you're out back washing the car and someone turns on the faucet inside, you can't get the hose to squirt at all,"he said. "You can't even get a drip out of it."

Utilities administrators here say the problems are caused by "an aging infrastructure," or more specifically, old pipes.

Many of the neighborhoods builtin the 1950s and '60s are getting dirty water and have low water pressure due to sediment buildup and the deterioration of 2-inch mains that carry water into their homes.

By today's standards, the 2-inchpipes are substandard. In most jurisdictions, 6-inch pipes are the norm. But the pipes were considered adequate when they were installed three decades ago, utilities officials said.

The easiest solution would be to replace the pipes and repair many of the larger pipes that connect into them. But the question of who should pay for it all has stalled action for years.

Two years ago, utilities officials approached residents in Glen Burnie, where the first section of bad pipes was identified, and said they were ready to replace eight miles of pipe by charging homeowners.

Residents were furious, saying they had paid for installation of pipes when they bought their homes. This "front-foot assessment" charge should guarantee them quality water service indefinitely, they said.

"They threw this back on us: If we want it fixed, we should pay," said Donald Gibson, a longtime resident of Patsy Avenue. "I don't think that's right."

"We've already paid the front-foot assessment," Nevin said. "If the pipes need to be fixed, it should be part of the county's obligation to pay for that."

But James M. Hurley, chief of administration and finance, said theutilities department simply doesn't have the money to replace the pipes. When homeowners buy a new home, they are charged a front-foot assessment, based on the size of their property, that covers the cost of installation alone, he said. Although most people pay off the assessment over 30 years, the money still goes to cover the original expense, he said, not to set up a long-term maintenance or replacement program.

Some residents and county officials say this explanation is unacceptable, coming from a department with an annual operating budget of $46 million and a multiyear capital budget of $400 million.

"Part of planning is to plan for replacing old pipes. That's what the (front-foot) money is paid for, and it's not fair to ask people to pay again," said Theodore J. Sophocleus, who represented the North County area on the County Council from 1982 until 1990. "You can't wait until people have paid for 30 years and then say, 'Start paying again.' "

Sophocleus said the department should re-examine its capital improvements program to ensure there is adequate money for repairs andreplacements, as well as new projects. In the past, he said, the department has put its emphasis on new projects, ignoring rehabilitationand replacement work.

"This condition has existed since 1982 at least," he said. "People were told the water problems would be corrected. They were never told they would have to pay for (pipes) again."

County Councilman Edward Middlebrooks, D-Glen Burnie, said the situation is unacceptable and requires "immediate action."

"It doesn'tseem very difficult to me," he said. "Funds should be set aside -- hands off -- and lines should be replaced as the time comes.

"How many years are we going to lay around and wait and do nothing, while the situation just continues to get worse and worse?" he asked. "Schools do it: They plan (to renovate) older schools, and they don't just do it for a year at a time. They plan ahead."

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