Tens of thousands of Prince George’s County, Md., residents are going to lose water for up to four days during emergency repairs to a distressed water main. With temperatures expected to be in the upper 90s all week, people are filling bathtubs and buying bottled water in preparation for the tap going dry. We’ll look at what prompted the water main emergency and how residents can cope through an unusually hot week.


  • Jim Neustadt Director of Communications and Community Relations at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission


  • 13:06:40

    MR. MARC FISHERFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" connecting your community with the world. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post sitting in for Kojo.

  • 13:06:59

    MR. MARC FISHERComing up later this hour the story of danger on the high seas, modern-day piracy and the havoc it plays with international commerce. But first, with temperatures heading into the upper 90s today a local water district is telling tens of thousands of residents to fill their bathtubs and buy bottled water if they can because their water service is being shut down for up to four days smack in the middle of this heat wave.

  • 13:07:24

    MR. MARC FISHERSensors inside a 54-inch water main in Prince George's County set off alarms that indicate the pipe is close to failing. So the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission is imposing water restrictions tonight and shutting down the main tomorrow to make emergency repairs.

  • 13:07:40

    MR. MARC FISHERJoining me to talk about how to prepare for several days without water is Jim Neustadt. He's the director of communications and community relations at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. And Jim Neustadt, what is the latest on the, how much longer people will have water in that affected area of Prince George's County?

  • 13:08:00

    MR. JIM NEUSTADTAh, good afternoon and thank you for having me. What we have right now is a pretty rough time, a good timeline of where we're headed. We want people to stack up as much water and store as much water as they can up until 9 o'clock tonight.

  • 13:08:18

    MR. JIM NEUSTADTAt 9 o'clock tonight we'll put mandatory water restrictions into place where we will ask people to use none or bare minimal water. That, during that time the following time after that we will replenish our pipes in the area that's affected by this which is a substantial area of southern Prince George's County.

  • 13:08:42

    MR. JIM NEUSTADTWhen those pipes are replenished then we are on a roughly 15-hour timeline to keep a, where we want people to really conserve. If they conserve well then it can last longer than 15 hours that they can have water in their homes to some extent.

  • 13:09:07

    MR. JIM NEUSTADTThe big advantage to this though is to keep the water pressure for fire protection. So fire protection is the issue. It's conceivable that if everybody pays attention and everybody conserves water it could go even longer and it's possible they won't run out. But, you know, what's going on here is you're using water from other sources at the same time you're using minimal water in your homes so it's kind of tricky.

  • 13:09:34

    MR. JIM NEUSTADTOnce we get the water built back up in the system which will be two or three hours, maybe four hours overnight so maybe midnight, a little bit after, then we'll start to de-water the water pipe that is giving us a problem. And from that point on it will be three to five days, hopefully the three days until we can restore water service.

  • 13:09:58

    FISHERSo now what happened here? This is a 54-inch water main that serves a big chunk of southern and western Prince George's County. What, an alarm went off? How old is this main and what happened to it and why does the repair have to be done immediately?

  • 13:10:12

    NEUSTADTOkay, all very good questions and first of all the pipe is mid-60s. It's what we call a PCC pipe, pre-stressed, concrete cylinder pipe. What that has in it is it's a concrete pipe and embedded in there are, think of coat hangers, wire coat hangers that are wrapped around it, throughout the length of the pipe.

  • 13:10:38

    NEUSTADTThose stressed pipes when you pull them tight give the pipe the support and the strength that it keeps from bursting. We have installed in that pipe just as recently as a few weeks ago a system that's called acoustic fiber optics because we know these are problem pipes and there's a long history to that.

  • 13:10:57

    NEUSTADTSo we've installed this state-of-the-art system to monitor these pipes. Now when corrosion hits the pipes, you, these little bands that are wrapping around the pipes will break and that makes a kind of pinging sound and that is picked up by the acoustic fiber optics.

  • 13:11:16

    NEUSTADTWhat we have recorded in recent days is a whole lot of these little pings, these wires snapping to the point where we are very concerned that this pipe is going to break. It's imminent and the timeline I gave you previously could go away if this pipe breaks.

  • 13:11:32

    NEUSTADTSo what we have tried to do is give the public enough notice to prepare for this while we go in and unfortunately have to repair this in the hottest time of the year. We regret that very much but it's the pipe that's really telling us what we need to do.

  • 13:11:48

    FISHERBut what would happen if you said, you know, the temperatures are in the mid-90s, if you factor in the humidity it feels like it's in the mid-100 to 110 range and what would happen if you said, we're going to wait until the weather breaks this weekend and take the chance that this thing will burst. Why would that bursting be dramatically worse than the deprivation and hardship that's going to be caused through this heat wave?

  • 13:12:13

    NEUSTADTBecause there's no guarantee that it wouldn't break in that time and which case we'd have a very uncontrollable situation and it would take a lot longer to fix it and people would be without water for a much longer period, for a longer period of time and without a lot of notice. So we really need to go in and make that happen now because we do not want that pipe to break.

  • 13:12:34

    FISHERIf you have questions about what you need to do, if you live in the service area affected by this closure you can give us a call at 1-800-433-8850 or email us at kojo@wamu.org We're talking with Jim Neustadt who is from the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.

  • 13:12:53

    FISHERAnd Jim Neustadt, there was a story not long ago in The Washington Post by Katherine Shaver about these very pipes that you're talking about and about the suburban Maryland supply of these concrete mains is greater than in many other parts of the country. And the problems are much more severe than the average utility has because you have quite a number of pipes of this nature. Why did that happen and what would it cost to replace them with a more dependable infrastructure?

  • 13:13:29

    NEUSTADTWell the cost, first of all is prohibitive. I mean to replace a mile of this pipe is, for two reasons, it's prohibitive from a dollars standpoint. You're talking about, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars and then you're talking about having to take these pipes out of service to replace them or to build alternate pipelines before you take them out of commission.

  • 13:13:53

    NEUSTADTSo where would you put those alternate pipelines? And then if you take them out of commission they're going to be -- that's part of the problem with putting this AFO in, is you can't do it all at once because the system has redundancy so we have to take one pipe out to make sure that it's being supported by another pipe. The water area is being supported by another pipe so we re-route the water to that area.

  • 13:14:20

    NEUSTADTOne of the problems we have in Prince George's County right now is that this 54-inch doesn't have that kind of redundancy so taking -- replacing all of these pipes is just not practical. And you also have to think that less than, like one percent of the pipe pieces, of the segments of pipe, are actually affected negatively by corrosion over the years and turns up in our inspections.

  • 13:14:50

    NEUSTADTSo, do you really want to throw out all the good pipe while you're going to go and replace just a small section of pipe which we're going to do periodically anyway under routine inspections and with the use of our acoustic fiber optic system to give us warnings on what's going on?

  • 13:15:06

    FISHERNow if this pipe or others like it were to blow without you having been aware of it and without you making these corrections that you're now going to be making I gather it's quite a dramatic event. They can essentially blow up like a bomb and leave huge craters in the roads and really do some damage.

  • 13:15:24

    NEUSTADTWell, I hate to bring up the examples but think River Road, think Connecticut Avenue a few months ago. Those are very dramatic incidents. We have incidents like that where the pipe bursts where we detected it and nobody knew about it because we went in and fixed the pipe.

  • 13:15:44

    NEUSTADTBy the way we didn't have that technology installed in River Road and over in Connecticut Avenue our technology would not have detected the kind of break that it had there. But those are the kinds of explosions as you might say that might happen if we don't pay attention to this. That's the kind of situation that we put ourselves in.

  • 13:16:09

    FISHERAnd the break that you're talking about took place in March. It was a 60-inch pipe so similar in size in Chevy Chase and the force of that blast blew a crater 20 feet deep in the side street just off Connecticut Avenue, created a geyser of 40 foot in height. And that was a case as you say where there was no warning received such as the alarm that you got in this case. How much of the affected system -- how much of these old kinds of pipes do now come with that alarm system?

  • 13:16:42

    NEUSTADTWell, right now we have, we have had a program in place for several years now and we have 77 miles of water mains, to what we call transmission lines, 48 inches and larger which go up to 96 or 106 inches in diameter. And we have now put acoustic fiber optics in all 77 miles of those. And we expect to start inspection and installation of the AFO in 68 miles of pipe that's 36 to 42-inch.

  • 13:17:16

    NEUSTADTNow of course the 36 to 42-inch are smaller and aren't going to have the same kind of impact if they break but it's still a precaution that we want to take and that we're going to do over the next several years and it will take several years to do that.

  • 13:17:28

    FISHERSo now if people who are going to have to go without water for the next several days, obviously it's going to be a hardship for them and for businesses as well. We've had reporters who have been talking to folks who run restaurants for example and obviously use an awful lot of water and basically can't do business without water. Is there any program for either compensating or in some other way helping out those kinds of businesses?

  • 13:17:53

    NEUSTADTWe don't have one. We don't have anything that in our regulations or rules that permit that. I don't know if individual businesses have some kind of insurance that protects them against that. I don't have an answer to that.

  • 13:18:07

    FISHERAnd as of this hour Prince George's County officials have not yet announced plans for getting water to the elderly, to the infirm, to housebound residents. Is that something that's coming?

  • 13:18:20

    NEUSTADTWe had been working with the County and they have, I believe, a news conference that they've set for three o'clock this afternoon at their emergency operations center. And I think they're going to detail what they have done so far and what their plans are. I don't know all of what they are.

  • 13:18:36

    NEUSTADTI know we've been helping supply certain trucks, kinds of trucks and working with them. I know the council of government is working with them as well and I think that they'll be able to make a lot more announcements about the kinds of things they're doing, opening schools, opening other areas that do have water.

  • 13:18:53

    NEUSTADTI would also encourage people to call on their friends and relatives who live outside of the area. I took a phone call late last night sitting in my office from somebody who said they were having trouble with our interactive map so I put the map in -- put the address in and looked on the map and she was right on the border of Suitland Parkway which is one of the borders here and she was just outside it.

  • 13:19:17

    NEUSTADTAnd you know, she could almost walk across the street to people, not quite, but almost to people and get help from neighbors. But people have relatives around. I think that's one thing that they can look at.

  • 13:19:28

    NEUSTADTWhile I'm talking about the map I would like to say -- apologize to our customers. We did have some problems with the map. It was just basically overwhelmed this morning with people using it and trying to find out if they're inside or outside the area. So that now has been fixed. We think it's working much better and if you want to know if you're in the area -- within the area that's affected in Prince George's County you can get to our website at www.wsscwater.com and look for the map and it should be able to tell you.

  • 13:20:00

    FISHERAnd we also have a link to that map on kojoshow.org if folks find that easier to remember. Final question, is there -- as you look at how long this can last? What's sort of the outside timeframe, the worst possible case?

  • 13:20:18

    NEUSTADTWell, I think the outside timeframe is about five days starting tonight -- a count that starts tonight. We think we can have the pipe fixed and replaced and people back in water in about three maybe. You know, we don't know but if everything goes smoothly we hope that that's all it will have to be. We are very much asking people to conserve starting at 9:00 tonight. It will help in the long run as we move through this. We want to wish them the best and anything we can do to help. We regret the situation very much.

  • 13:20:51

    NEUSTADTBut I think with the notice that we've tried to give and working with Prince George's County officials, that I'm optimistic that we can conserve a lot and that people can come out of this with the best outcome possible.

  • 13:21:06

    FISHERJim Neustadt is director of communications and community relations at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which serves much of suburban Maryland, and where a water closure will be in effect for portions of Prince George's County over the next several days. Thanks for joining us.

  • 13:21:21

    NEUSTADTThank you for having me.

  • 13:21:23

    FISHERComing up after a short break, as we continue on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," we'll talk about piracy on the high seas. I'm Marc Fisher sitting in for Kojo.

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