Tuesday’s town council meeting in Scotch Plains began as usual with a call to order and approval of minutes. What the council may not have anticipated, however, was a more than 40 minute dialogue about the recent stemming from a special presentation by New Jersey American Water representatives.
After NJAW representatives provided a timeline for the events that transpired beginning July 31 during their presentation, members of the public and council members addressed questions and comments to the representatives.
They were ultimately asked by Mayor Mary DePaola to confine their questions and comments to a minimum due to the length of the discourse.
After repeatedly being asked what more could be done to aid the affected residents, the overall sentiment of the evening, both from NJAW representatives and DePaola, was that it is no one’s responsibility but that of the homeowners’ insurance companies.
“This is a private matter between you and your insurance company, and at this point, we’re not liable,” DePaola said after Barbara Barone of 2081 Portland Avenue, Scotch Plains asked who would pay for damages to her home and belongings.
NJAW representatives began their presentation by chronicling the events relating to the water main break.
Director of Field Operations Thomas Shroba said at 3:30 a.m., NJAW received a call into their call center reporting the break, and a technician arrived on site at 4 a.m. to assess the situation.
The technician reportedly determined after seeing the volume of the water gushing from Portland Avenue that it must have been a 48 inch main that broke.
According to Shroba, the technician did not have the resources necessary to shut down a pipe of that dimension at the time. Consequently, the technician called his supervisor, who then instructed a crew to report to Portland Avenue and a contractor to acquire the resources necessary to close the valve.
In order to stop water from gushing out of the broken main, NJAW needed to shut down two valves in the area. One valve located at Midway Avenue and Cecelia Place in Fanwood, NJ required 55 turns to close the valve, and a second valve at Portland Avenue and Church Street, less than a quarter of a mile away from the break, required 570 turns to close the valve.
Crews arrived around 5:30 a.m. with a special truck used to close the valves, shutting down the main by 7:30 a.m.
“It is difficult to do that shutdown because you have the force of the water pushing against the valves trying to get out of that leak,” Shroba said.
He said the contractors worked 24 hours a day to restore the main, and by August 3, the main was back in service.
Shroba said that while initial road restoration is complete, residents must await final restoration until Scotch Plains and Fanwood engineers have been able to consult with NJAW engineers.
According to Shroba, the water main was installed in 1970 with a pre-stressed concrete pipe. The pipe consisted of a steel cylinder with cement iron on the inside, concrete on the outside, pre-stressed wire that held the cylinder together, and concrete coating to protect the wire.
“So, 42 years old–not very old to my standards and pipe standards,” he said. “Pipes stay in the ground for 100 years, so not very old. Not very old at all.”
NJAW hired a third party testing company who looked at the failed pipe and took samples of the water, concrete, and surrounding soil. The company also performed internal inspections of 200 feet of the remaining pipe to check for its integrity, which they found to be sound.
“We wanted to make sure that there wasn’t other pipe that was adjacent to that section of the main that was actually deteriorated or ready to fail,” Shroba said.
The company’s preliminary field assessment suggests that the wires surrounding the pipe and the cylinder corroded, causing an 18-foot section of the main to fail. NJAW replaced that section of pipe with ductile iron pipe, which is standard procedure repair, Shroba said.
“Why that corroded, that’s to be determined,” Shroba said. “We don’t have the final report, and I’m not sure that they’re ever going to be able to tell us exactly why it corroded, but that’s what they saw.”
NJAW plans to test the remaining 12,000 feet of water main in the fall, since water demands will go down after the summer months. At that time the company will conduct an internal inspection of the full length of the 48 inch water main. This testing will include electromagnetic testing to see if any wires are broken.
Manager of Government Affairs Kevin Watsey said NJAW responded to residents’ concerns by extending acts of good will to those directly affected. He said the company promptly contracted Servpro to pump the residents’ basements of water and work to dry the affected areas.
In addition, Watsey said NJAW offered to put residents up in a hotel, and the company plans to offer gift cards worth $500 to the impacted households.
According to Watsey, however, there is an established case law in New Jersey that states water companies are not liable for damage caused by main breaks, as they are considered unforeseen and uncontrollable events. Watsey encouraged the affected residents to go through their homeowner’s insurance companies for compensation.
Once the meeting was opened for discussion, Barone, whose residence was seriously affected by the main break, posed a number of questions. She initially asked why the pipe hadn’t been previously inspected, to which Shroba responded that the pipe is too new for an inspection, and a pipe of that age is not expected to leak.
Barone also said her insurance company, Allstate Insurance, denies responsibility for damages and told her the town and NJAW should have a fund to account for such occurrences.
“To my knowledge there is no fund. We’re not required to have any funds for anything like that...” Watsey said.
“We have nothing to do with it, no responsibility whatsoever…” added Township Attorney Jeffrey Lehrer.
Watsey said, however, NJAW’s insurance company will contact Allstate Insurance to discuss the matter on behalf of the residents.
Debra Heger of 2019 Birch Street, Scotch Plains said that while she is grateful for NJAW’s remediation so far, she wants the company to do more to help residents affected by the break.
“We’re just regular, working people, having to come up with these deductibles and replace major appliances–that’s a hardship for us,” she said.
“We were hoping that you would somehow help us out,” Heger continued. “We’re not asking for the world, but something to help us get back on our feet.”
Council members addressed several additional questions and comments to NJAW representatives, including Councilman Kevin Glover, who was on site during the day of the main break.
Glover asked if NJAW monitors water levels at all times, to which Shroba replied in the affirmative. Glover followed up by inquiring if anyone in the NJAW control room had noticed water levels dropping around the time of the incident, to which Shroba also replied in the affirmative.
“The reality is this was devastating to those people, every one of those folks I got to meet,” Glover said. “…You know, for someone to come in here and say, ‘I’m going to give you a $500 gift card’–and, by the way, we’ll take the gift card–I would look for a real corporate citizen here…”
“The reality is this was your pipe. The reality is that that pipe–through maybe no fault of yours–caused terrific damage,” Glover continued.
Glover asked when the analysis report will be made available to the town. Shroba responded that he does not know, but will hopefully have an answer in a few days.
In addition, Shroba said the manufacturer of the burst pipe is no longer in business, after which Glover requested NJAW contact other users of pipe made by the same company to see if they had experienced similar instances. Shroba also said there have been three failures of concrete pipe that he can recall in the last eight to 10 years.
After Councilman Bo Vastine asked NJAW representatives if the township of Scotch Plains could have done anything differently, NJAW Manager of Field Operations Michael Bange responded the media was a nuisance and that reporters should have been kept back from the scene by local police.
The special presentation portion of the council meeting ended in a slight uproar, as Barone wished to address Bange's comment after DePaola closed that portion of the meeting. She was unable to do so.