LANHAM, Md. (CBSDC/AP) — The large water mains buried throughout the Maryland suburbs were installed more than 30 years ago, when industry standards weren’t as strict, and are now considered some of the most problematic in the country.
The Washington Post reported in June that the poor quality of the concrete pipes combined with the high volume of water they carry makes them susceptible to explosions. Furthermore, the D.C. suburbs have more miles of the potentially dangerous concrete mains than almost any other area in the country.
The infrastructure weakness was abruptly exposed to thousands of Prince George’s County residents this week, after the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission received an alert from a warning system for a 4-½-foot water main on the verge of bursting. In order to replace the pipe, officials announced that water could be cut off to thousands of residents for up to five days.
The cut-off was expected to leave homes with empty taps and force restaurants and hotels to close their doors, unable to do basic things like provide guests with showers and wash dishes. Joint Base Andrews and the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center were among the affected customers.
The utility has since announced that complete cut-off has been avoided, but mandatory water restrictions are still in place for the region.
A massive pipe failure near Connecticut Avenue and Chevy Chase Lake Drive caused a similar problem when it exploded March 18 and left a 20-foot crater behind.
The 60-inch break shot water as high as 30 feet into the air and completely closed the roadway for hours. The enormous force of the break created a massive hole, washed out portions of the road, and brought down traffic lights. Mandatory water restrictions were in place for several days in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
The WSSC said then that the break was likely caused by an aging infrastructure.
There’s concern about similar explosions happening elsewhere, beneath land that was vacant when the pipes were initially installed. The problem, of course, is that homes, schools and roads have since been built overtop of them. A total of nine pipe explosions have already occurred since 1996, The Post report says.
In the case of the Prince George’s water outage, county officials worked to make the most of the advanced warning, said county spokesman Scott Peterson.
“One blessing is that usually there is a break, and you are dealing with the aftermath. This is a different situation,” Peterson said. “Because of new technology we were able to get out with 24-hour notice, and people were able to prepare for this. As frustrating as the situation is, most of the time you don’t even get 24 hours.”
WSSC has said aging infrastructure is behind steep rate increases over the past few years, but replacing the hundreds of miles of pipe would cost close to $3 billion, still a prohibitive amount.
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