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Cause of Fairmont’s Water Crisis Confirmed: Blame Put on Pre-Treatment

June 18, 2008

By Mallory Panuska, The Times West Virginian, Fairmont

Jun. 18–FAIRMONT — A city work session Tuesday confirmed what officials had already suspected was the primary cause of the water crisis at Fairmont’s treatment plant during the winter of 2007.

According to Wisconsin-based engineering firm STRAND Associates Inc., the corrective-action engineers hired last year to assess the situation at the 5-year-old plant, the lack of a pre-treatment method was the main cause of the problems two winters ago.

And to fix the problems for the long term, STRAND project engineers Scott Stearns and Brian Hackman presented a project plan to city council members and officials that carries a proposed $8.7 million price tag to be funded by an upcoming customer rate increase.

The engineers also presented evidence that points the finger at who is mainly responsible for the crisis, which appears jointly to be plant manufacturer, Canadian firm GE-Zenon Environmental Inc., and engineers and designers Chapman Technical Group.

In February and March of 2007, the membranes in the treatment plant were getting clogged with residue from its Tygart River source and slowing water production to a point too low to completely meet the high demand of all of its customers. This left some customers with little to no pressure and led to boil-water advisories for several days at a time.

STRAND engineers explained Tuesday that the current water plant, which was put online in July of 2003, was not designed to remove the abundant solids from the membrane tanks and recycle loops, which created these problems.

The firm, which has been selected by the city to correct these problems, has recommended both short- and long-term corrective actions to ensure that more problems like the ones in 2007 do not ever occur again.

The short-term actions, which were completed before this past winter, temporarily reduced solids ahead of the membrane filters, increased the pH to improve manganese oxidation and improved the membrane system operation enough to make it through the winter. Hackman said that this was done by adding a coagulant — a chemical that de-stabilizes the surface charge of particles and allows clarification to occur — at the bypass structure ahead of the reservoir where the water came from to drip into the system and settle out the solids. Both Hackman and Stearns said these actions proved to be effective because there were no problems in the system this past winter.

But they are not permanent. So for the long term, the engineers presented a plan that will create a permanent pre-treatment system that will restore the plant to remove solids before going into the membranes. This plan was one of four researched by the firm and proved to be the most cost-effective and least risky, the engineers said.

Hackman explained that the proposed plan also includes the installation of a buffer between the river and the membrane system to address changes in the water quality of the river in the future. This change in the water quality was one of the vital details that the current system was not designed to address, which created many of the problems, Hackman said.

“In order for the operators to control the process, they need this part of the puzzle,” he said of providing the pre-treatment services for all water conditions.

He added that in the city’s old plant, which the current plant replaced in 2003, there was a pre-treatment system in place that removed the solids from the water source adequately.

And as far as a timeline for the project, City Manager Jim Snider said that nothing specific has been determined yet, but that over the next few weeks, the city will look at the specific plans and determine how the price will roll into a rate increase. And once all that is determined, he expects a pretty speedy process for the project.

Currently, with evidence of the responsibility for the issues pointing heavily at both Zenon and Chapman, the city is also in the process of setting up mediations with officials from both firms and STRAND is assisting the process.

Hackman and Stearns presented details proving that Zenon officials claim that pre-treatment methods were not necessary when the plant was designed, and also that plans for a solids removal system were abandoned by someone before the final design phase was completed.

The pair also presented evidence that there were tests done on the quality of the water in the Tygart before the new plant was built and that the data was readily available, but not utilized.

“There is a lot of information that I believe went unused,” said Hackman.

But until the mediations are complete, the true responsibility for the issues cannot really be determined, and therefore the recourse action cannot be made, the engineers said.

Snider said that the city is confident in the work that STRAND has done, though, and he expects that the end result will be that Zenon and Chapman will be determined legally responsible for the issues.

“We are very confident that STRAND has brought to us an effective course of action,” Snider said.

“What it simply comes down to is that pre-sedimentation was needed, and we didn’t have it,” he added. “The mediations will determine the fault and ultimately if that doesn’t work out, then litigation will determine that.”

E-mail Mallory Panuska at mpanuska@timeswv.com.

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