I-Team: A 1-2 punch led to Orange County water crisis

Tuesday, February 7, 2017
I-Team examines water woes in Orange County
A perfect storm of problems created Orange County's waterless weekend, officials say.

CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina (WTVD) -- An investigation is underway into what led to the water crisis in Orange County that left more than 80,000 customers under a do-not-drink advisory during a marquee weekend on UNC's campus.

Officials with the Orange Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA) say two things happened within a day of each other that created a perfect storm for the calamity that unfolded.

Thursday, a problem at the OWASA water treatment plant in Carrboro led to the over-fluoridation of more than a million gallons of already treated water, rendering it unusable.

Then, Friday, a massive water-main break spilled more than a million gallons onto the street in Chapel Hill.

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OWASA officials say they were managing before the break because they were getting emergency water from Durham, but when the water main ruptured, pressure in the water line started dropping fast.

"It was just not going to be good for water quality and also for firefighting," said OWASA's Todd Taylor.

Water pressure is critical to clean water; with low pressure, bacteria can get in the lines and, if it drops too much, Taylor says "back flow" becomes a concern. Back flow happens when low pressure sucks contaminants out of end-user pipes and can contaminate water in the main system.

Orange County Health Director Colleen Bridger says, in this case, that didn't happen.

"There was absolutely no bacteria in any of the samples that we tested," Bridger said.


Still, 24 hours without water meant big headaches for homeowners and businesses throughout the area. The owner of the Franklin Street restaurant Roots says the water stoppage caused him about $10,000 during the weekend.

WATCH: Business owners tell Angelica Alvarez about the impact of the water emergency

Orange County bars and restaurants had to close during the water crisis, drying up profits.

Next door, Sutton Drug Store owner Don Pinney says he lost about $7,000. Pinney says the 1957 NCAA champion basketball team had planned its 60th reunion at his restaurant. It was canceled when -- because of the water ban - UNC's basketball game against Notre Dame was moved to Greensboro.

"We do apologize for the inconvenience it caused," said OWASA's Taylor.


He says the company has two ongoing investigations to figure out what went wrong with both the break and the over-fluoridation. As far as the line goes, he says it was put in during the mid-1970s. As for the fluoride, Taylor says they think it was mechanical failure. They've sent the pump off for inspection.

Meantime, Bridger says they learned one important lesson during the spill. The county needs better communication systems in place to reach non-English speakers.

"Thinking we can rely on English news media proved a flawed assumption," Bridger said. "We figured it out on Saturday. We were going door to door and trying to get the word out there; there's got to be a more efficient way to do that."


Shortly after our report aired, OWASA released a statement saying it will present a preliminary report on the water emergency Thursday night. The Board welcomes residents, businesses and others affected by the weekend water crisis to attend and give feedback.

The Board meeting will begin at 6 p.m. Thursday in the Council Chamber at the Chapel Hill Town Hall, 405 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Chapel Hill.

Members of the public will have up to four minutes per person to comment at the meeting. They may also send comments in advance to info@owasa.org or to Andrea Orbich, Clerk to the Board, 400 Jones Ferry Road, Carrboro, NC 27510.

"We sincerely regret the significant disruptions to the community due to the emergency, and we are extremely grateful to our customers, the City of Durham, Chatham County, Town of Hillsborough and other partners and volunteers for their strong support, cooperation and understanding during this difficult time," said John Young, Chair of the OWASA Board. "We are committed to transparency, prompt investigation and implementing improvements to minimize or prevent the potential for this kind of event."

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