From CPP: DEQ says Asheville didn’t follow communication protocols during water problems

Asheville Meter Services worker Tyler White installs new equipment in Asheville in 2015. Lack of communication about recent problems with the city’s water system led to widespread and sometimes costly confusion. File photo by Mike Belleme / Carolina Public Press

Originally published by Carolina Public Press

by Rebecca Andrews for Carolina Public Press

The condition of water in Asheville has been in flux for over a week, with many residents, businesses and schools confused by the lack of communication from the city and unsure whether their water was safe.

In the case of some businesses, coping with the unexplained loss of water proved costly.

According to a regional manager with the state Department of Environmental Quality, Asheville’s handling of the situation deviated from the state’s recommended protocol.

Two incidents

Beginning March 26, discoloration appeared in the water after a scheduled water supply line repair on North Fork Road from Cragmont Road to North Fork Left Fork Road in Black Mountain, according to a press release from the city of Asheville.

Then, on the morning of April 1, a 24-inch waterline broke in the River Arts District, causing a water outage for some and low water pressure for others.

“The break occurred after a scheduled waterline construction project was completed on Sunday in the same area,” said Cathy Ball, assistant city manager. “It appears Monday’s break was related to a failure in a piece of material used in Sunday’s waterline work.”

At 6:50 a.m. Monday, staff members at Ira B. Jones Elementary School, Montford North Star Academy and Vance Elementary School found they were without water. By 8:27 a.m., schools were informed of the waterline break and able to begin the school day after a two-hour delay.

Some businesses and residents did not receive a notice, as a city statement about the break and subsequent boil water advisory was not released until 4 p.m. Monday.

Vicki Crisp, an employee of Crowne Plaza Hotels and Resort in Asheville, said the hotel had no warning or notice from the city about its water.

“The first words I heard from third shift was ‘I’m sorry, I have no idea why you have no water,’” Crisp said. “We spent a small fortune on water this past week. We had to go to Sam’s Club and buy bottled water.”

In addition, laundry was taken off the property to a laundromat to avoid staining from discolored water throughout the past week.

The cost to local businesses is difficult to estimate. While having to spend about $1,000 on bottled water, Crowne Plaza also had to flush its pipes and lost customers due to the water issues.

Although reparations for other costs have not been discussed, Asheville’s water billing will be adjusted for those who had to flush their pipes.

 “We understand this comes at an expense,” Ball said, “and we will adjust bills so that the amount you pay is in line with previous bills from previous months.”

The cost for repairs is also uncertain at this time, however, the city budget allots money for events such as line breaks at the beginning of the year, according to David Melton, director of water resources.

Although Gov. Roy Cooper plans to set aside $127 million to improve water systems across the state, Asheville is not listed among those with projects scheduled to receive funding.

Communication woes

During a press conference Tuesday, city officials recognized a need for better communication.

“We understand that we did not provide detailed enough information to help people understand what they needed to do,” Ball said.

Kimberly Barnett, the regional manager for Asheville at the state Department of Environmental Quality, told Carolina Public Press that while the Safe Drinking Water Act does not require cities to inform residents of line breaks, there are guidelines in place that recommend it.

“They are supposed to notify the customers to boil the water and then take a sample to make sure there is no bacteria present in the water and then they lift the boil water advisory,” Barnett said.

“That’s the protocol they’ve been under for a while, I think since 2016. My understanding is, because I didn’t get any notices of that one, that they didn’t do that at this time. I think they tried by putting it in the press, but they weren’t following their standard procedure, which is to notify everybody.”

Barnett said she will be working with the city to create better channels of communication as well as eliminate the manganese in the pipes, which is causing continued discoloration of the water.

“Manganese can be insoluble and pass through the filters,” Barnett said. “So when they oxidize water, it sounds like it got oxidized and settled out in the pipes. So when the pipes broke, it stirred it up.”

Although DEQ was not directly involved in the process, confused and angry Asheville water customers bombarded the agency with phone calls. When CPP initially contacted DEQ for this article, a receptionist apologized for having to put the call on hold. She had been trying to talk with an Asheville resident who was furious about the water problems, she said.

Going forward

Melton said all samples of water tested negative for bacteria, making it safe to drink. Barnett said the results for chlorine and pH tests have also been good. The city will continue testing daily as per routine maintenance as well as testing until iron and manganese levels return to normal.

Additionally, Melton said, the city plans to devise a better system of communication by creating an internal standard for major issues such as waterline breaks.

“As soon as possible after a break occurs, the Water Department will directly communicate to customers, including schools, public housing neighborhoods, medical facilities and businesses,” Melton said. “Our goal is that you hear about the water issues from us first.”

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