Investigation Reveals Causes of Christmas 2022 Water Outage Incident - TribPapers

Investigation Reveals Causes of Christmas 2022 Water Outage Incident

Presenting the after-incident report to city council, Dennis Fagnant, a member of the emergency response subcommittee, was among many to embarrass Capital Projects Director Jade Dundas (not smiling) with compliments on a job well done. Screenshot.

Asheville – The Christmas 2022 Water Outage Incident Action Report, published on June 6, 2023, represents three months of work by an independent review committee that investigated the operational, emergency response, and communications issues leading to public outcry. Committee appointments were made by Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, including subject matter experts and customers. Recommendations from the committee will be prioritized by the council at a future meeting.

Findings Shed New Light on Water Outage Incident

Findings altered the initial narrative slightly, with Asheville enduring 81 consecutive hours of below-freezing weather and wind speeds between 15 and 20 mph. The event commenced with an unexpected Christmas Eve temperature drop to 0 degrees Fahrenheit. During this period, 27 municipal water lines broke, with additional breaks occurring “on the customer side of the meter.” Customers kept their faucets running to prevent breakage as treated water leaked out.

Operational Challenges and System Breakdowns

As the city’s water storage tanks depleted, the Mills River Water Treatment Plant, known for past outages, struggled to meet the demand for treated water. Plant staff discovered a clogged flocculant release line, which binds with impurities to form filterable particles, and a frozen caustic soda release line, which regulates water pH. Unable to treat the water to state standards, the plant was taken offline.

Repair teams also encountered frozen filter valve actuators and malfunctioning air valves. “All these problems necessitated time-consuming corrections.” To maintain pressure and service in the rest of the system, city water supply to the southern part of the system was cut off. Even after the entire system was restored, consumers in the western portion still faced water scarcity. Engineers eventually discovered that a 24″ valve at a redacted location had been closed. Once opened, water service was fully restored.

Investigators questioned the decommissioning of the East Asheville Pump Station, which could have supplied more water during the crisis. They learned that the station had gone offline ten years ago when the Mills River plant was launched. Although redundant and antiquated, the pump station could have played a meaningful role as future growth increased demand to 30 million gallons a day, a level reached during the crisis. Recommendations to open the closed valve and recommission the pump station were found among various water system studies.

The subcommittee investigating the emergency response heard from staff that it was “murky,” “inappropriate,” “unwieldy,” and “cumbersome.” Fire Chief Scott Burnette was the only person who appeared to know who was in charge, namely Water Resources Director David Melton. No command center had been established, and communications between Buncombe County Emergency Management and the Asheville Fire Department were described as “information pulling” rather than sharing.

Other problems arose from one group perceiving they had checked all the boxes while others disagreed. It was then discovered that the language in the guidelines was ambiguous, contributing to the issues addressed by the communications subcommittee.

The communications subcommittee was highly critical, citing examples of erroneous messages, including statements that 38,000 consumers were affected and the system would be fixed within 24-48 hours. Mayor Esther Manheimer and Councilwoman Maggie Ullman faced criticism for overstepping their roles as elected officials and pressuring city staff to provide rushed messages and data, requiring more time for accurate information gathering.

The report commended City Manager Debra Campbell for carefully adhering to her roles and responsibilities and bending the rules only to address public outcry. While members of the council understandably wanted to respond to their constituents, Manheimer explained that inserting themselves into meetings to seek answers could exclude other council members, as open meeting laws prohibit unannounced quorums.

Operations subcommittee recommendations included conducting large valve inspections, regularly monitoring flow at key system points, increasing tabletop exercises, and expediting the full conversion to automatic meter reading. Recommendations from the emergency response subcommittee involved better defining terms and responsibilities, as well as establishing an incident command system for the City of Asheville. The communications subcommittee recommended hiring, training, and certifying staff to ensure effective communication with media outlets.