By John Burton
MIDDLETOWN – It was a worrisome and tense weekend for local officials, residents and business owners, for New Jersey American Water, and, well, everyone in Monmouth County. Especially for those 22 towns most directly impacted as the county addressed the emergency following last Friday’s water main breaks.
Peter Eschbach, director of communications for New Jersey American Water, said a wooden bridge and trestle carrying three large water main pipes over the Swimming River, in the Lincroft section of Middletown, collapsed into the river, severing the pipes. It stopped the flow of about 50 percent of the company’s water supply and impacted water pressure to the company’s customers in much of the county.
One of the large pipes, as Eschbach explained it to The Two River Times™ on Monday, carried water from the Swimming River Reservoir pumping station into the plant. The other two pipes carried water out of the plant to the company’s distribution systems and on to customers.
The bridge dates to the 1970s, but engineers regularly survey and maintain it, and engineers checked it out just a couple of weeks ago and found it in decent condition, Eschbach said.
As of Monday afternoon, the reason for the collapse remains unknown, Eschbach acknowledged. “We don’t know why (it occurred)” but “we’ll get to the bottom of what happened here,” he said. In the interim, he stressed, our priority is getting operations up and running and providing safe water.
New Jersey American Water has 95,000 customers in Monmouth County, which translates to roughly 150,000-200,000 people within 22 communities in the county.
The county’s Office of Emergency Management, after consulting with the Board of Chosen Freeholders, enacted a countywide state of emergency following the break. What that move did was to put in place restrictions and advisories, prohibiting the outdoor use of water for lawns, gardens and any other non-essential uses. The advisory told people to boil water or use bottled water for drinking. The water could continue to be used for bathing (as long as you kept your mouth closed) and for washing clothes, said the county’s released statement.
Given the loss of water pressure, as Eschbach explained it, there was the possibility that contaminants and bacteria could infiltrate the system and put people at risk.
“When the media says you got this and that going on, people react to it and they come out and they buy and they do what they’ve got to do,” said Louis Scaduto Jr., president of Food Circus supermarkets.
Four of his company’s Food Town supermarkets saw a rush on bottled water on Friday. “Friday night was very rough. We sold pretty much everything that we had” in the way of bottled water in the company’s Red Bank, Ocean Township, Port Monmouth and Atlantic Highlands locations, he said.
From Friday to Monday afternoon those four stores sold about seven tractor-trailers full of bottle water. A trailer can carry, on average, 22 pallets of water, with each pallet carrying about 40 24-packs, or 50 cases of one-gallon jugs, Scaduto said.
“We’ve been busy,” said Jay Sleifer, manager of the Port Monmouth store. “We’re doing the best we can,” he added on Sunday, noting he was waiting for another truckload to arrive at about 3 p.m.
Along with the rush on store water, the water company and county OEM established three water distribution sites – at Middletown High Schools North and South and at Wolf Hill Park, Oceanport.
Over the course of the weekend staff and volunteers working with the municipalities’ OEM and New Jersey American Water were giving out about 400 gallons of water per hour. “And at the height of the heat we were handling 800 gallons an hour,” Eschbach said.
At the sites, volunteers limited distribution to two gallons per car per trip, Eschbach said.
On Sunday morning at High School North the line of traffic waiting to enter was long and the weather was hot. But the volunteers seemed generally in good spirits and kept the traffic moving, as they loaded cases of ShopRite bottled water. (There were large tank trucks on the site and people were able to take as much as they wanted as long as they had their own containers.)
“This is a pretty large-scale production,” said Chris Hodes, with Howell OEM, who was helping out on Sunday. “When there’s a need we’re around and try to do what we can.”
Chris Hill, a Howell police sergeant, was there with some of the kids from the local Police Athletic League, which he oversees. He and the boys had helped during Hurricane Katrina a few years ago. “And now here in our backyard,” Hill said.
“Many hands make for light work,” said Bob, a 72-year-old volunteer for Hazlet’s OEM, who wouldn’t give his last name. “There’s work to get done, let’s get it done,” he said, adding, “It’s the only exercise I get.”
Michael Oppegaard, the county’s OEM coordinator, said on Monday his office worked with local officials and water company representatives to coordinate county resources and provide additional law enforcement presence as well as Public Works employees and equipment at the distribution sites. To his knowledge, “We had zero complaints from residents regarding distribution sites,” and no reports of any disruptive incidents.
By Monday morning only four towns – Highlands, Holmdel, Aberdeen and Middletown – remained on the boil water advisory. That was lifted Monday night in those towns. But the entire county continues to remain under the outdoor water restrictions.
The restrictions continue because of fear of falling water pressure and the infiltration of bacteria should it happen again. “If we lose pressure because of water sprinklers it means people will be back to boiling their water,” Eschbach warned.
By the Fourth of July holiday Eschbach hopes to have temporary pipes in place and have water output up to its winter distribution levels, which is considerably less than the traditional summer high usage. The company also plans to purchase additional water from other companies as needed.
Winter treatment production is 25-35 million gallons a day; for summer it is between 50-60 million.
“It’ll take months to get a permanent solution in place to get us up to a point where we can meet what is the typical summer peak demand,” he acknowledged.
The state’s Department of Environmental Protection and the water company tested the water with the DEP
determining there were “zero signs of bacteria,” DEP Spokesman Bob Considine said on Tuesday.
Given what could have become a quite serious situation, Middletown Mayor Anthony Fiore said on Tuesday he was very pleased with how residents and New Jersey American Water responded. “Based upon what I saw on Friday, I think they [the water company] did a remarkable job of keeping water and pressure in the system, based on the amount of damage that occurred,” Fiore said.
But there is a but to his assessment. “I’m going to give them a failing grade for why it happened at this point. Because I think it was preventable.”
Given the age of the structure, its apparent easy accessibility to the public, and its clear importance to the operations, something has to be done to prevent something like this from happening again, and he plans on telling company representatives that at the first available opportunity, Fiore said. “To me that’s the most critical lesson learned here right now,” he said.