After averting a possible five-day loss of water service during a heat wave, southern Prince George’s County residents and businesses who suffered financially from the expected shutoff are demanding answers from the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.
The WSSC announced July 16 that maintenance work on a section of a failing 54-inch concrete pipe would require a three- to five-day shutoff that would impact at least 100,000 people in Oxon Hill, Forest Heights, Joint Base Andrews, National Harbor, Morningside, Temple Hills, Hillcrest Heights and Camp Springs. Later that day, WSSC found a valve replacement for another pipe that could provide water for the communities while the failing pipe was fixed, canceling what county officials said would have been “the equivalent of a natural disaster hitting the county.”
Kent Digby, senior vice president of The Peterson Cos., which owns most of the 95 businesses that make up National Harbor, said the fiscal effect of the water scare was “substantial,” and business has remained slow as people think the businesses are closed or have no water.
“I see less and less, but I still noticeably see some people calling [to see if we are open],” Digby said, estimating that Peterson loses $500,000 per day when National Harbor is not operational.
County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) announced plans to discuss WSSC’s handling of the potential water service loss and whether there are other county valves in need of repairs, said Baker spokesman Scott Peterson. No date has been set as of yet for that meeting, Peterson said.
“I want to make sure we have all the options available to us when we announce it,” Baker said at a July 17 news conference. “We realize that this event had a significant impact on our economy. People were inconvenienced and businesses lost money, but we did what we had to do to prepare for the anticipated loss of water service.”
WSSC officials explained that they wanted residents to be prepared in case repairs required shutting off water service. WSSC spokesman Jerry Irvine said it is the responsibility of the company to let the public know when there is a crisis.
“Even if it doesn’t hit, people need to be prepared,” Irvine said. “We were looking at an emergency situation for those customers and we had to make customers aware of that fact and prepare for it.”
Irvine said when pipes as large as this one fail, they do a significant amount of damage, and the company would be just as active in warning the community if a similar situation arose in the future.
Chris Alexander of National Harbor said he questioned why WSSC didn’t explore its options before telling everyone that water loss was imminent and he would have liked to know there was an alternate plan.
“Coming from a contingency background — I spent 20 years in the Coast Guard — you expect they’ve done all their homework, and it’s a last resort,” Alexander said.
Irvine said it would not have been responsible to notify the public about the possibility of a valve replacement.
“We did not have confidence that the valve could be fixed and to talk about that with the pubilc could have misled folks,” Irvine said.
Ben Grimwood, of National Harbor, said he spent about three hours July 16 waiting in line at a Home Depot in Oxon Hill to buy items in preparation for the shutoff, including the last six trash cans available to fill with water.
“I spent about $500,” Grimwood said. “They wouldn’t take returns.”