Thursday, Jan. 31, 2008

Town heeds lessons from 1999 sewage spill

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On June 18, 1999, a subcontractor detonated 255 pounds of dynamite to clear away rock formations on what was to become the Sun Meadows subdivision in Walkersville.

The explosion ruptured a sewer and loosed 885,000 gallons of raw sewage into the ground. The accident was discovered on June 21, and four days later, the town issued a water boil advisory.

Walkersville residents were forced to use city water for five months as officials worked to clean the mess. Initially, they got drinking water from tankers parked at Walkersville High School, the Frederick County Chapter of the American Red Cross, Glade Elementary School and Safeway.

‘‘After the ’99 incident, we were able to install certain filters and alarms into our water plant,” Walkersville Commissioner Chad Weddle said. ‘‘Before, we didn’t have those alarms or anything ... the [contaminated] water had already gotten into the system.”

The sewage break affected about 7,000 water customers for about five months, while the town and Frederick County pumped the system clean. The water towers were drained and refilled with water from a Frederick water treatment plant.

Health officials found contamination in 22 of the 160 private wells they sampled, and nearly 60 people reported falling ill. In January 2001, Walkersville received $540,000 from the Sun Meadows developer, landowner and subcontractors, as a result of the incident; Frederick County received more than $260,000.

An above-ground pipe that connected Walkersville to Frederick city water had no danger of freezing during the summer months of the 1999 incident — a possibility now facing the town and county.

Mike Marschner, director of Frederick County’s department of public utilities and solid waste, said water would flow through the pipe, which lines Md. Route 194 and crosses the Monocacy River, at 4 feet per second at all times to prevent freezing. If temperatures fluctuate, the pipe could burst, he said.