No Paper Trail In Flood

Records Of Main That Broke In Montgomery May Be Lost

August 28, 2009|By Katherine Shaver | Katherine Shaver,The Washington Post

An investigation into how a large water main that burst and flooded River Road in Montgomery County last year was allowed to be installed improperly has found that inspection records for the pipe might have been thrown away inadvertently, leaving the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission unable to determine whether other pipes could have similar problems, WSSC officials said Thursday.

Officials said three months of searching have failed to turn up daily inspection reports that would have revealed what the utility's inspectors witnessed as the 66-inch concrete pipe was laid in the ground in 1965, or at least what they recorded. A Florida-based consultant found in May that the pipe was installed directly against jagged rock and lacked the required bedding of gravel designed to cushion it against cracks and corrosion.

After the report's release, WSSC officials said they would investigate how many other pipe installations the same contractor and inspectors were involved in to determine how widespread the rock problem could be and whether inspections on any of those pipes should be made a higher priority. However, the utility's interim general manager and chief engineer said Thursday that they have deemed such a search impractical.

Instead, they said, they can better determine which pipes are weakening by stepping up inspections of the larger concrete mains to find those suffering corrosion, regardless of the cause.

"To me the message is these inspections are crucial," said Teresa D. Daniell, the WSSC's interim general manager.

Firefighters and police, using boats and a helicopter, had to rescue a dozen motorists Dec. 23 after they were stranded in a torrent of frigid, muddy water that cascaded down River Road in Bethesda when the pipe burst. The dramatic rescues, shown on television around the world, became a symbol of the potential danger of the nation's decaying underground infrastructure.

The River Road pipe's inspection reports could have been thrown away in March or April, when a storage room at the utility's Laurel headquarters, which contained microfilms of older documents, was cleaned out to make way for computer equipment, said WSSC spokesman Jim Neustadt. He noted that the microfilms were thrown away one or two months before the search began for the River Road records.

"We don't know for sure that those records were in there," Neustadt said. He said WSSC policy requires such records to be kept two years, but they are often kept longer. However, the inspection record could also have been discarded years ago.

Gary Gumm, the WSSC's chief engineer, said he found some drawings that had the names of more than 10 inspectors and surveyors on the project. However, he said, it would be "speculative" to conclude that any other projects they worked on were faulty.

"I'm concerned about all those pipes," Gumm said. "We need to get into all of them" to inspect them and WSSC officials have said they are most concerned about the health of the largest concrete mains because they are highly pressurized, causing them to literally explode if they corrode. Because of development, some pipes once buried in the countryside are now close to major roads and neighborhoods, where they could cause significant damage. Such large breaks have also led to widespread boil-water advisories for residents and businesses.

Montgomery Council Member Marc Elrich, an at-large Democrat who has been critical of the WSSC, said he finds it "really odd" and "a little close for comfort" that the records could have been tossed within months of the utility's searching for them. He said he's also concerned that the WSSC doesn't know how widespread any problems are.

"If they really think this pipe was laid incorrectly, then the inspectors had to look away," Elrich said. "I'd assume that didn't happen only once. For me, this is a real cause for concern."

The contractor who laid the pipe, George Tripp, said Thursday that no one investigating the huge pipe break has contacted him. Tripp said he disputed the consultant's finding that the broken pipe lacked the gravel bedding.

"My God, you think we'd put in a pipe against rock so it would fail?" Tripp, 88, said in a phone interview from his Pennsylvania home. "No way. We had a reputation. And [the WSSC] had a man there watching us."

Other problems, such as design flaws or too much water pressure in the line, could cause such a break, he said.

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