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Water system critic: Some improvements are seen

“There’s something rotten in the Fayette County water system ... and it stinks.” That’s how I began an open letter in early September. In the letter, I was critical of the county’s response to the state’s inspection of the water system.

More than two months have passed since that letter, and the county has approved a $338,000 contract with CH2M Hill, the water system’s “engineer of record” to help respond to the state’s inspection report, to assess the operations at the two water treatment plants, to evaluate overall water treatment operations, and to evaluate the computerized remote monitoring and control system.

It’s time to revisit the problems and the county’s response.

In the first place and in my opinion, six of 10 violations and 122 of the 140 deficiencies noted in the state’s survey were minor, easily correctable, and had no direct effect on the quality of the water that was delivered to customers.

They were “in the weeds” — literally in some cases (“cut grass,” “remove trees from lagoon banks”). Many of the deficiencies were routine housekeeping matters, such as removing empty chemical containers from a particular room.

Some were related to equipment labeling. While unlabeled or improperly labeled pumps and pipes could lead to a problem, there is scant evidence that they did so. And we’ve been told that the majority of these deficiencies have been corrected.

Of the 10 violations, one was not having a licensed “Operator in Responsible Charge.” This has been fixed. Ditto the second violation, that uncertified persons were performing duties at the well treatment plant: fixed.

Violation 3, lack of a Business Plan may require some work and expertise, but there must be someone on the county staff who is capable of creating a business plan.

The fourth violation relating to monitoring and recording the concentration of disinfectant in water was described to me as a failure of the remote monitoring system. It appears from data I’ve received from the county that this problem, too, may have been largely fixed.

Violations 5 and 6 were nearly duplicates, and related to monitoring for “turbidity,” in simple terms, how much “dirt” and organic matter is in the water. However, the problem was not that there was “too much,” but that the monitoring records could not be produced. I’ve seen those records; they’re there. And, they’ve been provided to the state.

Violations 7 and 9 also related to record-keeping, and not to an identifiable water quality problem. Violation 8 was procedural, and has been corrected.

Violation 10 told us what we already knew: there was a period of time this summer when the water was stinky. It’s been reported that the cause of the stinky water earlier this year was misdiagnosed by the Operator in Responsible Charge. At least, it’s fairly certain that the solution was delayed by that person’s early decisions. However, that problem, too, has been solved.

It’s rumored that the reason one water plant was shut down in August was that water was drawn from the wrong level in a reservoir because someone opened the wrong valve.

If that person were untrained or if the valve were mislabeled, then we could say that deficiencies or violations noted in the Sanitary Surveys were at the root of that problem.

But all we have at this point is anecdotal and potentially apocryphal information: nothing on which we should base decisions. Further, any problems with training or labeling are easily solved.

There is in my opinion considerable evidence of long-term neglect of housekeeping and maintenance. And there are some appalling examples of that.

For instance, plants have been allowed to grow in the expansion joints in the roof of a large holding tank (“clear well”) at the South Fayette Plant. It will require an engineer to assess how much damage the plant roots have caused, and what must be done to repair that damage.

Grout was missing from joints in the four million gallon tank at Crosstown and it will require an engineer to evaluate the structural integrity of this pre-stressed concrete tank.

It appears as well that a lot of paperwork was neglected. This is something that is easily correctable with the proper management and leadership.

Perhaps the greatest need was for a manager who would spend more time managing, and less time figuring out how to get his picture taken with the Board of Commissioners.

The county has picked the low-hanging fruit among the violations and deficiencies noted by the state; what’s left requires the expertise of at least six different engineering specialties.

If the county had these people on staff, their salaries, benefits, and overhead would likely cost nearly $1 million per year, and there wouldn’t be enough work to keep them busy but a couple of months a year — at least, that’s the way I see it.

That’s what the $338,000 is buying. It’s buying inspections, hands-on examinations, testing, and reports from multiple engineering specialties.

More important, it’s buying a thorough, top level survey of the two water processing plants with an eye to reducing operating costs and enhancing the quality of the water.

The bad news is that these inspections, examinations, and tests will almost certainly identify problems that will take money to fix.

The good news is that, according to Mr. Lee Pope, the new Director of the Water System, there’s money available in reserve funds to pay the anticipated costs.

I understand that the county has a dress code for employees, and that Mr. Pope is required to wear a suit and tie. I would not be surprised, however, to see him at least occasionally in work boots and denim.

I’m not “getting soft” on the county; I intend to work hard to keep their feet to the fire. I’m looking forward to seeing, and reporting on, the results of the various inspections, examinations, and tests. Please “stay tuned.”

Paul Lentz
Peachtree City, Ga.

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