NJ American: Damaged water mains were due for repairs

Inspections found pipes had been damaged by tropical storm Irene

Staff Writer

The three water transmission mains that collapsed at the New Jersey-American Water Company’s  Swimming River treatment facility in Middletown on June 29 — touching off a countywide water emergency — were scheduled to be repaired, company spokesman Peter Eschbach said.

The pipes and the bridge that suspended them over the Lincroft reservoir had been damaged by tropical storm Irene in 2011, he said, and after a number of inspections throughout the year the company had employed an engineer and a contractor to strengthen the structure in June.

“An engineering project had been launched to actually do some repair work to strengthen the bridge,” Eschbach said. “Phase one of that project began with another survey of the bridge during June, to make sure that nothing had changed. Pipe and materials had been ordered and the work was actually close to beginning when the structure collapsed.”

New Jersey-American, he said, had performed inspections on all of its facilities and infrastructure following the tropical storm. Noticing the damage to the bridge at Swimming River, the company then commissioned an independent firm to perform two more inspections, the final one concluding in June.

“The pipes had shifted,” said Eschbach, “but they were still within the manufacturer’s performance specifications. There was no inherent danger of it collapsing at that point. The worry was, what if another storm comes through?”

New Jersey-American commissioned the multi-phase project that would strengthen the mains and the bridge and planned to have it completed prior to hurricane season of this year, he said.

According to the state Office of Emergency Management (OEM), the peak period for hurricane and tropical storm activity in New Jersey runs from mid-August through the end of October.

Tropical storm Irene hit the Garden State at the end of August 2011.

Eschbach said the company has not determined a cause for the collapse yet and declined to speculate on whether the storm damage could have been a contributing factor.

“Our main focus throughout this process has been customer safety and ensuring that the water supply was stabilized. We have launched an investigation, but as of now we don’t have enough facts to say definitively why this happened.”

New Jersey-American is in the process of selecting a third-party consulting firm that will look into the collapse and attempt to establish a cause.

Monmouth County spokesman Bill Heine said on July 5 he was aware that New Jersey-American had been planning repairs on the Swimming River Bridge.

“Clearly, they were working on a fix,” he said. “But the fix didn’t come in time.”

Early on June 29, the three mains and the bridge supporting them collapsed into the Swimming River Reservoir in the Lincroft section of Middletown.

Following the collapse, a countywide water emergency prompted a coordinated response from New Jersey-American, Monmouth County, local OEMs, the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Public Works and Engineering, the health department, sheriffs’ offices, local authorities and the New Jersey State Police.

A boil water advisory was issued for the 22 municipalities directly serviced by New Jersey-American, as decreased pressure in the company’s mains led to a risk of potentially harmful bacteria breaching the system, Heine said.

On  June 29 a state of emergency was declared for all of Monmouth County, with the county banning outdoor water use and calling on residents and business operators to conserve water whenever possible as New Jersey-American drew water from other county utilities to help stabilize its system.

Residents and businesses that do not get their water from New Jersey-American were dropped from the ban on Thursday. 

Middletown, Holmdel, Aberdeen, Highlands, Rumson, Fair Haven, Little Silver, Oceanport, Sea Bright, Tinton Falls, Shrewsbury Borough, Shrewsbury Township, Long Branch, Eatontown, West Long Branch, Deal, Allenhurst, Loch Arbor, Neptune, Monmouth Beach, Lake Como and Ocean Township are still subject to the ban, which prohibits activities like watering lawns, shrubs and gardens, washing cars and filling swimming pools.

Following the collapse, the New Jersey-American installed temporary pumps and mains at the Swimming River site to increase production and began pumping in additional water from its treatment plants in Neptune and Howell.

In conjunction with the resources New Jersey-American received from other water companies, the system was stabilized enough by the evening of July 2 to lift the boil water advisory.

Last week, Eschbach said repairs for the damaged mains were already under way, but that a permanent fix was still a long way off. The repairs require the installation of 1,000 feet of new ductile iron pipe and the fabrication and installation of new supporting infrastructure.