OWASA braces for flood of complaints after water crisis

Thursday, February 9, 2017
OWASA prepares for meeting
OWASA will hold its first meeting since the water crisis on Thursday evening.

CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina (WTVD) -- Prepare for a storm of complaints.

On Thursday, Orange Water and Sewer Authority's (OWASA) Board of Directors will meet for the first time since tens of thousands of customers were told not to drink or use the water for more than 24 hours.

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"I want to know if they'll reimburse me," Chapel Hill resident Danny Pesta told ABC11. "It was a huge inconvenience and there was a lot of money lost in business."

For Pesta, the OWASA water crisis hit home in more ways than one: the busted water main that gushed more than 1 million gallons of water was located just up the hill from his apartment.

OWASA will hold its first meeting since the water crisis on Thursday evening.

"I started feeling water in the bedroom on the carpet," Pesta recalled. "So that got me picking up everything off the floor and as high as it can go."

On its website, OWASA announced its Board of Directors will receive public comment and discuss the water emergency at a meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday at Town of Chapel Hill Council Chamber, 405 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Customers are invited to sign up at the meeting and offer up to four minutes of comments and questions.

Also on the site, OWASA explains in broad detail how "a series of events led to a large-scale water emergency in our community, resulting in Do-Not-Use and Do-Not-Drink directives for the entire service area that remained in effect for over a day. These directives were required to protect public health and the water supply. We know that the community has and will have many questions in the days and weeks to come. We are committed to working with the community to answer those questions honestly and transparently. As the community and OWASA recovers, we will continue to provide updates to the community on the impact and investigation of the event."

Officials with OWASA told the ABC11 I-Team 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.

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: Restaurant, bar owners tell Angelica Alvarez about the impact of water crisis

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

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.

ABC11's Jon Camp and Angelica Alvarez contributed to this report.

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