Originally created 07/04/99

Water main has often cost city dearly



If it proves to be leak-proof, the county's decrepit 42-inch water main may be back on-line this week, but it wasn't revived -- for the fifth time -- before sucking over $1 million from the county's coffers.

The utilities department has shelled out $1,009,420.40 in the past two years alone to pay for repairs and inspections for the pipe, which had been out of commission since 1995.

The amount only includes inspections and repairs needed to bring the water main back on-line last year and the cost of piping, repairs and inspections needed since the pipe burst three weeks ago.

Not included are several thousand dollars in repairs paid out when the pipe -- the largest in the Augusta water system -- broke four times before, starting in 1989.

In 1974, when the line was being considered, the Augusta City Council had a decision to make: Either go with a more costly, but historically durable, ductile iron or a less expensive pre-stressed concrete. City officials chose the latter.

The city needed the additional pipeline to help a 42-year-old, 36-inch steel line and a 96-year-old, 30-inch line carry raw river water from the Augusta Canal to the Highland Avenue facility to be treated.

At the time, engineer Jack Armstrong warned the council about the risks that would accompany installing the cheaper pipe, even though it then saved the city $260,694 on the cost of the four-mile, $2 million water line.

"We expressed preference over the other because the ductile iron would have a higher safety factor built in," Mr. Armstrong, vice president of Zimmerman, Evans and Leopold engineers, said in 1974.

Last month's break was the fifth one and each of the previous breaks damaged property of residents in the surrounding areas.

Since the pipe's first rupture in 1989, the 25-year-old water main not only has been a governmental money pit, but it has been a nightmare to nearby residents as well.

February 1989: The pipe broke and caused Berckmans Road to cave in between Hillside and Cherry lanes.

July 1991: A second break occurred in the Berckmans Road area, after which engineers concluded the cause was a weakness in the pipeline and the malfunction of the surge relief valve. The ruptured main then left a 12-foot hole in the 300 block of Berckmans Road.

July 1995: The line burst a third time for no determinable reason under the CSX Railroad tracks, flooding a neighborhood and causing $100,000 in damages.

December 1995: The line broke, damaging two homes in National Hills and 14 in nearby areas 10 days before Christmas.

June 19: More than 500,000 gallons of untreated water roared into the Riverlook Drive neighborhood after the main broke at about 2 a.m. Six homes in the area suffered flood damage.

The main had been out of commission for 2 1/2 years when it was reopened in June 1998 to help alleviate a drought-induced water shortage. The 42-inch line was abandoned after the Dec. 15, 1995, rupture that flooded the National Hills area causing $350,000 in property damage.

Augusta paid more than $300,000 in 1998 to the inspectors who approved use of the pipe.

The additional adaptors and pipe parts that were needed cost $120,383.53, according to an itemized report from the utilities office.

And the cost to repair the break that occurred three weeks ago will exceed $82,000.

The 260 feet of replacement pipe that was needed after the Riverlook Drive break cost $60,000. New Jersey-based Openaka Corp., which charged $54,356 for a pipe inspection four months before the June 19 break, billed the city $13,084 more to check the water line after the latest rupture.

The city also purchased a valve for the repair project from Cobb County for $9,000.

More expenses are coming, said Utilities Director Max Hicks. Among those are excavation costs for at least two days during which Blair Construction Corp. workers uncovered and dug around the water main.

The plan is to stop bandaging up the old concrete pipe soon and turn to more reliable technology by next summer.

Slated for completion in June 2000, a $9.2 million, 60-inch pipe that the county has been constructing for the past five months has some high expectations to meet.

Like the 42-inch main, the new pipe will go also from the Highland Avenue facility to the canal, but will run through different property, Mr. Hicks said.

"When we get the 60-inch going it will be one of our primary lines," Mr. Hicks said. "The 42-inch line will only be there for emergency situations, but we would modify it to keep it operating.

"We'd rather see if we can line it with steel and see if we can't use that."

And the new pipe will be made of ductile iron -- which is the material engineers recommended for the 42-inch line more than two decades ago.

"It's the material that has held up over the years, and we haven't had problems with it breaking," Mr. Hicks said.

"There is never a 100 percent guarantee that any pipe won't break, but this pipe has a better history."

Clarissa J. Walker covers south Richmond County for The Augusta Chronicle. She can be reached at (706) 828-3851 or cjwalker@augustachronicle.com.