Sewage taints town's water

Walkersville relying on trucked-in water, aid from Frederick Co.

June 26, 1999|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

Raw sewage that leaked from an underground pipe severed in a construction accident June 18 has seeped through layers of limestone and reached the water supply of Walkersville.

Officials in the town five miles northeast of Frederick are trucking in fresh water and advising residents to boil tap water for one to three minutes before using it. They are also installing an additional filter system at their water-treatment plant, said Elizabeth Pasierb, Walkersville's planning and zoning administrator.

Frederick and Frederick County are building a temporary water line above ground to help supply the town until the crisis is over, she said.

Technicians had been testing the town's water supply every six hours since Monday, when they discovered the sewage leak. Bacteria levels were increasing constantly and jumped sharply yesterday morning, Pasierb said.

Michael G. Marschner, chief of the Frederick County Water and Sewer Bureau, said samples had shown consistently high levels of fecal coliform that were "progressively going up and going up rapidly," indicating that at least some of the 900,000 gallons of sewage had reached the water supply.

Bacteria levels in samples from the town's three wells went up tenfold during the week, he said, prompting officials to act.

The water trucks will be stationed at four locations around town, Pasierb said. Town officials will deliver water to the elderly, disabled and others who are unable to leave their homes. It is unclear when the temporary water line will be available for Walkersville's 7,500 customers.

The town, which usually uses about 1 million gallons of water a day, also has restricted outdoor water use to ease the demand on Frederick's water supply, Pasierb said. Usage is down to about 700,000 gallons a day, she said.

Wednesday, a hydrogeologist injected dye into the spill site, expecting it to follow the path the sewage took to the water. It also will give engineers an idea of how quickly the sewage flowed and how long it may take before it is out of the water supply, Marschner said.

The sewer pipe, 12 feet under ground, was shattered when a blasting crew working on a new subdivision on the outskirts of town apparently set off a charge too close to the pipe. No one noticed the leak until Monday, when sewage seeped into the basement of a Fredericktown Bank branch about a half-mile away.

The biggest problem is the geology of the area. 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.

The town's water-treatment plant can filter out most of the contaminants in the sewage, with the exception of the microorganisms cryptosporidium and giardia. Infection can cause diarrhea, nausea or stomach cramps, and can be fatal to people with weakened immune systems.

The scare started a run on bottled water at local stores. The CVS store in a shopping center near the construction site had such a heavy demand for water that it ordered extra supplies, said Todd Andrews, a corporate spokesman for CVS.

Investigators from the state Department of the Environment have not decided whether to "take any enforcement action" against Explosive Experts of Sparks, which did the blasting, said Quentin Banks, department spokesman.

Marschner said there is no way to tell how long it will be before the town's water supply is considered safe.

"There's always a chance that the sewage has been trickling down through the fissures rather than moving in one big mass," Marschner said. "So it could be three weeks, two months. We don't know. If it goes six months, we'll have to worry about the water in the above-ground line freezing. But we're in crisis-management mode now."

Pub Date: 6/26/99

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