On Friday, February 3, grocery stores in and around Chapel Hill were flooded with shoppers filling carts with bottled water of any shape or size in sight. This rush was triggered by two events that had rendered the city’s water supply undrinkable. While the city’s problems did not reach the level of severity of the Flint water crisis in Michigan, the predicament caused hundreds of stores and restaurants to close down and resulted in a district wide school cancellation.
The first problem occurred on February 2, 2017, when an OWASA employee accidentally pressed a button releasing an excessive amount of fluoride—used for cleaning the tank—into the water supply, contaminating the water. The following day, a separate break in the water line, which caused over 1 million gallons of water to be lost, brought about the decision to cut off the water for citizens. No contaminated water made it to any homes, but no clean water was available either. Fortunately, a connection to Chatham County was formed, allowing for hundreds of thousands of gallons of water to be supplied to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area. During this time, crews worked to restore the Jones Ferry water plant and repair the break. In addition, nearby cities lent a helping hand to Chapel Hill and Carrboro during the crisis. Durham and Charlotte delivered tens of thousands of water bottles to those in need, and supplied local businesses with more water as well.
OWASA Public Affairs Administrator Greg Feller discussed the issue with the ECHO on Sunday, via email.
“A fluoride overfeed made it necessary to shut down our water treatment plant Thursday. In addition, a line break caused a major drop in pressure in the tank and we lost over 1 million gallons of water,” said Feller. “ We isolated the [contaminated] water at a line break Friday, cleaned the area, increased the pressure of the water, and tested it again.”
OWASA’s communications suggested that it would continue to investigate the contamination and the line break. However, concerns about the crisis continued to spur many questions within the community. Fortunately, on Friday, February 10, the questions were answered. OWASA determined the cause of the fluoride spike—the employee’s mistake—and the reason for the broken water main—an extremely dilapidated pipe.
After determining that the water was safe enough for human consumption, OWASA allowed the tank to refill and the pressure to return to normal, urging citizens to minimize their water usage. Durham and other areas continued to supply the town with water. On Sunday morning, it was announced that the water supply was ready for normal usage.
Feller also thanked the citizens of the area for their quick response to the problem.
“Our customers responded by reducing water use, and we are very appreciative for their understanding and cooperation in this difficult time,” said Feller. “I’m not aware of any hospitalizations, but there were considerable disruptions and inconveniences to residents and businesses.”
The water crisis affected the East population outside of school as well. Sophomore Tommy Smigla had some of his after school activities displaced by the incident.
“The water affected one of my last few rec [basketball] games of the season,” said Smigla. “Not being able to use water was hard, but my mom was in Durham and was able to get us some bottled water.”
It is apparent that the water crisis of February 2017 affected nearly the entire Chapel Hill population, and although the problem was resolved quickly, OWASA has said that regaining the public’s trust is their main priority going forward from the incident.
Photo courtesy of OWASA