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Pinellas County knew of faulty water pipe at least a decade before Dec. 23 rupture

A decade before a water main rupture disrupted Christmas for tens of thousands of Pinellas residents, the county was warned of its weakened condition.

An acoustics test, conducted over 133 days in 2001, revealed 600 possible break points in the Belcher Road line that required "significant corrective measures."

But instead of replacing the faulty pipe, Pinellas water managers downplayed the risk, opting for repairs and repeatedly delaying its removal, according to a St. Petersburg Times review of hundreds of pages of documents dating back to 1996.

As a result, the county has spent nearly $2 million since 2004 for repairs to the water main that runs under Belcher, from East Bay Drive to Bryan Dairy Road. The total includes $300,000 for emergency repairs, but does not yet include all the overtime hours it took to fix the rupture in December.

More than 150 people worked furiously around the clock to repair the break, one of the largest in county history. The pipe will be replaced for $7.5 million this year, a decade after questions surfaced about its integrity and decades before it was supposed to wear out.

• • •

The pipe that ruptured in December was made by a company called Interpace.

Warnings about the company's defective piping go back decades, in news stories about costly breaks across the country and in Pinellas County's own files.

In 1979, Pinellas sued the pipe maker after a larger, 60-inch, pipe ruptured. Essentially the wire reinforcing the main went bad, undermining the strength of a pipe expected to last decades.

Interpace, which made some of its pipes in Pasco County, went out of business, plagued by defective piping claims across the country.

Pinellas spent $21 million to replace the line and $9 million on the 15-year legal battle, though court awards eased some of the bill, news accounts show.

But a smaller, 48-inch version of the pipe remained, underneath Belcher Road. Unlike with the bigger pipe, the county held off replacing it because it hadn't actually ruptured or demanded serious reconstruction, officials said. It also was a smaller model, albeit with the same bad wiring.

It appears to be among the last of its kind among the major governments in Tampa Bay. Hillsborough no longer has any, and St. Petersburg replaced its a decade ago, utility officials said.

Tampa has about a mile and a half left in several places, including a section on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard that is currently being replaced, wastewater director Ralph Metcalf said. Plans are under way to replace the others.

"This (pipe) is going to go bad. It is just going to be when," Metcalf said.

• • •

In early 1997, Pinellas hired an engineering firm to investigate the main under Belcher. Reports at the time describe it as deteriorating, raising suspicions.

But crews had trouble getting an adequate look, so an acoustics test was ordered.

The results prompted a recommendation for repairs or replacement.

The county decided in 2004 to spend $1.2 million to replace several sections of the pipe. The matter came before the County Commission as an "emergency" expense due to "imminent" risks. The item was approved without any discussion, including an unexpected $430,000 in additional repairs, records show.

"Normally those types of issues don't get reported up to the commission level unless they have a material impact," said Commissioner Ken Welch, a board member since 2000. "Obviously, this one did."

Pick Talley, the utilities director from 1991 to 2008, said the staff and studies never suggested the entire line posed an imminent threat, allowing them to proceed only with repairs.

Replacing the whole main would have been complex, requiring extensive traffic mitigation and coordination with other projects that could disrupt water service. Private engineers, in reports provided by the county, never ruled out only making repairs.

But even a simple valve repair triggered alarm.

"Decisions need to be made quickly," Kevin Becotte, the current interim utilities director who was then director of the general maintenance, wrote in a February 2004 e-mail to staffers. "As I told you Monday, the leak could be undermining the road, causing a potentially dangerous situation."

The 2004 repairs only served to raise more questions about the integrity of the pipe.

As workers excavated around the pipes, they discovered the main was in worse shape than originally thought. Some sections thought to be fine had crucial support wires that were long deteriorated, according to reports at the time.

"We had no idea whether the segments of the pipe were good or bad," said former utilities engineering chief Michael Sweet.

An outside consultant reviewed video from inside the main in 2005, and said the pipe was worse, in fact, than lines the county was currently replacing.

Engineers warned that the water pressure could be surpassing a level the pipe could tolerate.

The county turned down the pressure, and decided it was time to replace the pipe.

But that 2005 decision didn't translate to actual work on a replacement line.

The project suffered numerous delays as officials decided on a replacement line and haggled over its design.

Construction on a new $10 million line was scheduled for 2009. But that schedule collided with the recession and newly hired County Administrator Bob LaSala imposed spending cuts.

So the project was delayed again, said Sweet and former utility director Tom Crandall, Talley's successor.

"It was the opinion of staff, and I'm not trying to point the finger at someone else, but it was the collective opinion of staff that we could get by for another year and there would not be catastrophic failure," LaSala said.

"Was is it done cavalierly? Absolutely not. It was done with a great deal of thought," he said. "We thought, 'Well, could we get another year out of it?' "

But when money was again available, the project snagged over revisions to a workable traffic plan for when crews were digging up the street. The only plus: construction costs dropped $2.5 million during the recession.

Work on a new line started in June — more than a year later than engineers planned.

Work was scheduled to be done in fall 2011. Now the county is asking the contractor to speed up the work in hopes of avoiding another blowout.

Once the new line is in place, the old, deteriorating main will be abandoned.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Pinellas County knew of faulty water pipe at least a decade before Dec. 23 rupture 01/15/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 15, 2011 9:41pm]
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