Faulty water main has Howard officials fearing hazardous break


When a four-mile-long water main ruptured in Elkridge last June, it was more than just a $30,000 repair expense for Howard County. It was another throb in what has become an $8 million headache.

It was the sixth break since 1979 in the 14-year-old pipeline, which was built to last a century. The county is trying to determine what caused the June 22 rupture. It has traced the previous ones to defects in construction.

Now, county officials are convinced that the pipe's manufacturer -- the former Interpace Corp. of Corona, Calif. -- stiffed the county with an expensive lemon, one that carried only a year's warranty. There also is fear that the force created by another break could be dangerous.

"This has gone to the point of protecting the lives and property of residents," said Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, who noted that ruptures sometimes have the effect of concussive explosions.

County public works officials are considering replacing the entire pipeline, which runs underground from Md. 108 in Columbia to the county's eastern border parallel to Interstate 95 in Elkridge. It would cost $8.5 million, and that doesn't cover the approximately $180,000 Howard has spent on repairs.

But Howard is not alone.

Two major water main arteries exploded in Pinellas County, Fla., in 1978 and 1987 and will require millions of dollars to replace. Pinellas won a $25 million court judgment against Interpace and its engineering consultant last June for the 1978 burst in a 17-mile-long pipe.

Other suits against the company are pending in Richmond, Va.; Oklahoma City; and Duluth, Minn. Also, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which supplies water to Montgomery and Prince George's counties, has experienced ruptures in Interpace pipes. And, minor failures in Interpace mains are making Baltimore utilities officials jittery.

The suspect water mains are prestressed concrete cylinder pipes, known in the industry as PCCP. That type of pipe is made when steel strands are placed under tension and coated inside and out with concrete. It is widely used for large water mains, and is the only water pipe available in diameters larger than 36 inches. Several companies still make it.

Nick Stephen, maintenance chief in Baltimore's utilities department, said most of the suspect pipe in the city and throughout the country was built by Interpace at its Ohio facility in the mid-1970s.

"There obviously was a manufacturing defect during that period," said James Irvin, Howard's public utilities director. "It's a significant one and there are some really bad problems in the country because of it."

The PCCP in Howard County, which carries water 2,100 feet from a water pumping station in Elkridge to Mayfield Avenue in eastern Columbia, is 36 inches wide. Irvin said most of the pipe's ruptures have occurred in the same area, off Eibank Drive near I-95.

The faulty line is not operating at full service. Workers will shut the main soon because they can make repairs and switch to alternative sources in winter months when demand is lower, Irvin said.

Meanwhile, Howard County attorneys are trying to determine whether they can take legal action against Interpace to recoup the county's costs.

But they say that may prove difficult because they first must figure out whom they can sue. The name Interpace has disappeared and the company is owned by a Chicago holding company called Madison Management Group Inc.

Interpace's pipe-building arm, Lock Joint Products, has been sold to Gifford-Hill & Co., of Dallas.

A Gifford-Hill spokesman said his company is not liable for any costs sustained by defective PCCP pipes and referred calls to Madison Management. Madison officials did not return a reporter's telephone calls.

Attorney G. Lee Garrett, who represented Interpace in the Pinellas County case, declined to comment on the pipe made for Howard County, but he contended that PCCP has a success rate "well in excess of 99 percent."

"There is nothing inherently defective about PCCP," said Garrett, of Atlanta. "It's a very reliable structure. All structures are subject to wear and tear and perhaps ultimate failure, but it's a very fine product."

Mark McCurdy, an attorney in the Howard County law department, said he expects the county to hire an independent consultant to confirm that the breaks resulted from poor construction. He said he would have to wend through a legal maze to figure out which company could be held responsible.

"It might be too early to get into the possibilities," McCurdy said. "Any of a number of jurisdictions across the country are discussing this issue."

For now, the county must bear the costs. It has reserved $744,000 in its current capital budget for land acquisition, plans and engineering work to replace the pipe. There is another $7.7 million in fiscal year 1992 in the five-year capital program for construction of a new main.

Irvin likens problems with PCCP made in the mid-'70s to the recent discovery that chemicals used to treat certain plywood for roofing materials break down the wood. County officials first became aware of a manufacturing defect in the pipe after the first break in 1979, he said.

Then, he said, "we really got quite concerned" when a major break occurred on July 4, 1988, leaving a large portion of the county without water. The problem became more obvious as additional communities across the country expressed problems with PCCP.

Irvin said the faults have prompted Howard to revise its specifications to call for ductile iron pipe instead of prestressed concrete, including the work for the replacement main in Elkridge. He said he would change back to PCCP when he is convinced once again it is reliable.

"Right now," he said, "there's no incentive for us to do that."

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