United Water probing crisis

Thursday, July 15, 1999

Staff Writer

One day after Bergen County's water emergency ended, United Water on Wednesday began assembling a team of engineers, chemists, and communications officials to determine what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again.

The team's primary focus will be to figure out why the system's largest distribution line leaked Sunday morning, causing service disruption and water restrictions for 750,000 people in Bergen and Hudson counties.

The company says a rubber gasket slipped between two sections of 78-inch pipe, but it does not know why the slippage occurred on a pipe that is just 13 years old.

A company spokeswoman said the team also will cooperate with the state Board of Public Utilities, emergency management personnel, and a customer-advisory committee in answering several questions posed by state and utility officials:

Can long-term planning or infrastructure improvements guarantee steady water flow in a system that has seen three major service interruptions in 10 years?

Can training -- including emergency preparation drills -- be changed to improve response time in areas such as repairing leaks and distributing fresh water to customers?

How can the utility distribute emergency news as quickly as possible, especially on a weekend?

Spreading the conservation message was urgent Sunday because the system was operating at only partial capacity because of the leak. As the system was drained of water, there was a greater possibility of bacterial growth in the pipes and reduced pressure for fighting fires. Because of these dangers, most Bergen County residents were asked to boil water before drinking and were prohibited from watering their lawns and other outdoor uses.

But utility officials and emergency personnel readily acknowledge that the conservation message did not sink in with the public until Monday. Part of the problem was that the state police could not reach anyone at WFME, the West Orange radio station considered the "gateway" of the emergency alert system in North Jersey, officials said.

"The public wants to cooperate, but they have to know," said Sgt. Dwane Razzetti of the Bergen County Office of Emergency Management. "They can't help you if they're uninformed."

A state police captain said he is seeking increased communication with radio stations in light of Sunday's failure. And Razzetti said he was in contact with Cablevision on Tuesday to try to arrange for increased cooperation in the future.

The BPU, which recommended a series of infrastructure improvements after a 1996 United Water main break, has had investigators on the site of the leak in Oradell. But a spokesman would not comment on the probe.

The BPU can fine utilities who violate state regulations. Also, the BPU has jurisdiction over rates and can consider a utility's compliance with board recommendations when it is asked to approve increases.

Deb Rizzi, a United Water spokeswoman, said the utility's team was meeting for the first time Wednesday, and would not offer details about its members or about the timetable for their investigation.

Copyright 1999 Bergen Record Corp.