Some Chapel Hill and Carrboro residents are still recovering after the water crisis on February 3 and 4 that left all without running water during the affected time.
An accidental overfeed of fluoride in the water at the Orange Water and Sewer Authority Plant caused the initial issue on February 2. OWASA began receiving water from the City of Durham at that time to continue supplying customers with high-quality drinking water.
OWASA had also asked customers to try and conserve as much water as possible. The next morning, a major water main break occurred in northeast Chapel Hill.
OWASA is working to keep all informed while the organization works on recovery for the community.
“The county was always guided by what was best for our public health and safety community,” said Ed Kerwin, OWASA executive director. “And we can say with confidence that the drinking water remained safe throughout the event and at no time did elevated levels of fluoride reach the public drinking water system.”
Kerwin presented information on the water emergency to the Chapel Hill Town Council Monday evening. He said a major cause of the issue with the pipe break was that it wasn’t originally installed in regulation with the same standards held today,
“A pipe like that is expected to last at least 40 years,” he said. “Perhaps as long as 80 or 100 years, and it lasted what? 44 years.”
Chapel Hill Fire Chief Matt Sullivan also attended the meeting to discuss emergency personnel responses to community reactions to the water emergency. Sullivan said all personnel worked to create a measured response, as to not incite an already-tense community.
“Had we run out of water, and we were definitely worried that we were getting to the point Friday afternoon that we might run out of water, we might just be digging out right now,” he said. “So, I think OWASA’s staff did an incredible job getting us back online and preventing some of the long-standing effects that we could have had.”
Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue also spoke at the meeting and said one of the most difficult jobs was communicating to all residents that the water wasn’t usable. Especially, because he said many community members wanted answers to specific questions about what to do.
“How to take your rain barrel and how to use that to put in the back of your toilet to flush it, can you put kitty litter in your toilet? And is it safe to do that?” he said. “That’s a real question we got, by the way. And the answer is no, by the way, in case you were wondering.”
Kerwin said decisions are still being made by officials about the future of the water supply, particularly whether or not fluoride will continue to be used.
“The OWASA board hasn’t decided if and when it would take up the question of fluoride or no fluoride,” he said. “So the OWASA board has not yet decided whether it would take that up. But what we know for sure we’re doing, is looking at our existing fluoride feed system to determine what improvements may be needed before we return that to service.”
Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said whatever the final decision is, it’s important to remember that the emergency could have been worse.
“This could have gone on much longer,” she said. “And I think you were prepared if it did, I’m glad it didn’t go on much longer—we’re all glad it didn’t. And I know we’re still learning lessons and I agree. Thank you for the communications in different languages, in different media formats, our community partners that helped communicate, we’re learning more about that.”
OWASA has called a special work session Friday at 7:00 P.M. to discuss the independent investigation into the cause of the water crisis.