Sewer leak causes concern

Walkersville residents keep phones busy with water questions

`Hundreds' of calls

June 24, 1999|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

WALKERSVILLE -- All day yesterday the phones in Town Hall here rang off the hook as residents called, fearful about the quality of their water after a construction accident Friday spilled 900,000 gallons of raw sewage.

Gloria Rollins, Town Hall administrator in this hamlet about five miles northeast of Frederick, said she lost count, but there "must have been hundreds of them."

She waved a notepad nearly full, saying, "And those are only the ones since we started logging them in about 10: 15. Most of the calls came before that."

"Can I give the water to my cats and dogs?" "Can I water my tree?" "Who's going to pay for my bottled water?" residents ask.

Technicians have been testing tap water every six hours for the past two days but so far have found no evidence of contamination, according to Michael G. Marschner, chief of the Frederick County Water and Sewer Bureau.

Jim Vernon, 36, a plumber who lives across West Frederick Street from Town Hall, doesn't see what the fuss is all about.

"I've been a plumber for 15 years, and there's no way a sewer leak could back up into my water system," he said. "I understand you have a problem if you have a well, but not if you're on city water. We were talking about it with the guys at the shop today."

But others aren't taking any chances. Harry C. Lawson, who owns Prosperity Cleaners on West Frederick Street, said he makes sure to boil all his drinking water.

Bob Jester, chef at Village Tavern in the same shopping center with Fredericktown Bank and Trust -- where the leak was detected -- said he is being extra careful.

"We're boiling all the water we cook with, and we're buying bag ice," he said. "We wash our hands a lot, and even after that everybody in the kitchen puts their hands in the sanitizer."

The sewage leaked from a pipeline shattered Friday when a crew from Explosive Experts of Sparks in Baltimore County, working on a new subdivision on the outskirts of the town of 4,900, apparently set off a charge too close to the pipe, which is 12 feet underground.

But no one noticed the leakage until Monday, when an employee at the Fredericktown Bank branch in a shopping center about a half-mile away called to report sewage in the basement.

Marschner said county crews notified town officials of the problem and traced the leak to the construction site, where they saw raw sewage form on the surface, then seep back into the ground. They repaired the line and began testing water.

Town officials warned children, the elderly and those with weak immune systems to boil tap water for at least a minute before drinking it, and banned outdoor use to save water.

The greater the demand for water, the more the treatment plant will draw from its wells, increasing the chance that the sewage will be drawn into the wells, Rollins explained.

Frederick County operates the sewer system, but Walkersville owns and operates the water system, which has about 7,500 customers, town officials said.

The biggest problem is the geology of the area, said Elizabeth Perseib, town planning and zoning administrator.

Walkersville, like many towns in Western Maryland, sits on limestone, which is full of cracks and fissures that allow pollutants to move through it quickly, threatening the ground water that supplies the town.

"It's difficult to trace the movement or even to determine where it's moving," Perseib said.

The treatment system at the town's water plant can filter out most of the contaminants in the sewage, with the exception of two microorganisms, cryptosporidium and giardia, she said.

Infection can cause diarrhea, nausea or stomach cramps, and could be fatal to people with weakened immune systems, Marschner said.

Investigators for the Maryland Department of the Environment were in the area yesterday, "looking into the circumstances of how it happened" to "decide whether an enforcement action is warranted," said Quentin Banks, MDE spokesman.

Evans Bildstein, general superintendent of Explosive Experts, said workers knew the sewer was there, as required by the state's Miss Utility law, but apparently drilled too close when placing charges.

"There might have been a communications breakdown somewhere," he said. "It was something that should never have happened, but it did."

Technicians will continue testing for at least the next few days, Marschner said.

Town officials were meeting yesterday to decide what to do if the water is contaminated.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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