Turns out that UNC-Chapel Hill officials have some doubts after all about the handling of February’s water crisis in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
As voiced recently to university trustees by Brad Ives, associate vice chancellor for campus enterprises, they concern what he termed the “rather drastic steps” at the height of the crisis to order people not to drink or use water from the Orange Water and Sewer Authority’s piping network.
Ives told the trustees’ finance committee that campus officials think that in a similar situation, it’s “going to be more important to have some senior-level staff” at Orange County’s emergency operations center. They also believe they “could’ve worked more closely with state environmental officials” who they suspect influenced the decision in February to issue the twin alerts.
Combined, the Feb. 3 alerts shut down the towns’ restaurants, and prompted UNC to issue a rare advisory of its own urging students to leave campus for the weekend. Officials believe 50 percent to 60 percent of the students who reside on campus actually left.
The crisis had its roots in events the day before, when errors at OWASA’s Jones Ferry Road water treatment plant triggered an “overfeed” of flouride into the plant’s water stockpile that rendered it useless and took the plant offline. Matters escalated the morning of Feb. 3 when a water-main break in northeast Chapel Hill dumped a lot of the utility’s remaining, in-network water supply.
Repairs proceeded quickly, and officials were able to lift the don’t-use/don’t-drink orders mid-afternoon on Feb. 4.
Ives, who in the immediate aftermath of the crisis called OWASA “a trusted partner of the campus,” told trustees it’s obvious an emergency existed. OWASA’s water stockpile on Feb. 3 dropped below the 2 million gallons officials consider the bare minimum needed.
But in a later interview, he said campus officials now believe the decision to call the alerts resulted from “a state determination by” the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality.
“Had we had more information at the time it was happening, I think we could have stepped in and talked to” the department, Ives said. “But we didn’t know exactly what was going on at the time as to who was making the determination. We assumed it was a local determination.”
UNC’s environmental safety director, Mary Beth Koza, in an interview added that “procedures were followed” in that local officials consulted state regulators and heard back from them that “we should have a do-not-use.”
Both she and Ives noted that given the situation, the menu of potential responses changes and often involves less drastic measures. Koza cited the example of an early-March boil-water advisory in northeast Chatham County, in response to a water leak there and resulting pressure drop.
“I am not second-guessing the thing, it’s just that each situation is unique and the folks making the decision have to really understand the impact,” she said.
But OWASA’s executive director, Ed Kerwin, said February’s call was made by local officials, and was the right one.
OWASA’s biggest problem on Feb. 3 was that it was running out of water, not that low network pressures would’ve sparked disease, he said.
“Had we had a huge fire like the city of Raleigh recently experienced, we would’ve been at real risk of running completely out,” Kerwin said. “Had that happened, the community would’ve been affected for days and days, not just 24 hours.”
Kerwin was alluding to the re-start problems that ensue if a water network runs dry. Engineers have to run a lengthy series of contamination tests before putting mains back in service.
The OWASA boss was adamant that while local officials kept regulators informed, “the state was not involved” in decision to issue the alerts.
“The state did not say, ‘You better issue a do-not-use/do-not-drink,’” Kerwin said. “That was a decision made here locally.”
He added that DEQ regulators did have some advice for OWASA about the “remediation” of the flouride issue at the water plant. But about the alerts, there “was no state advice or guidance.”
Stacy Shelp, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Health Department, said it “was a local decision,” made by Kerwin and UNC-trained former county Health Director Colleen Bridger.
An investigation by outside engineers found that after the Feb. 3 water main break, water levels in the tanks that serve the UNC campus and the southern two-thirds of Chapel Hill “all dropped below minimum [levels] to maintain fire protection,” a fact giving weight to Kerwin’s concerns.
Water pressures — the bigger factor in disease worries, as opposed to supply ones — dropped briefly in much of the system, but it’s “unlikely that the entire, or even majority of the [zone] experienced unsafe” conditions, the engineers report said.