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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Workers are seen as water floods by a Tennessee American Water alongside the Tennessee River on Friday. A break in a major 36-inch line left much of Chattanooga without water for more than a day.
some text Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee American Water External Affairs Manager Daphne Kirksey speaks during a press conference at the Hamilton County Emergency Communications Center on Monday, Sept. 16, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Tennessee American Water Company has released some details of the maintenance that led to what the utility is now calling its largest water outage in "recent history," after questions from elected officials and pressure from American Water corporate headquarters.

Details about last week's outage, which left around 35,000 connections without water for as long as three days, are slowly beginning to paint the picture of the leak that occurred during the final phase of a large preventative maintenance project.

After Tennessee American declined to answer a series of questions about the leak, outage and subsequent filing of a class-action lawsuit on Tuesday, most of which were asked by news media during the outage, the Times Free Press redirected the same list of questions to American Water. That resulted in the local office answering most of the questions in an email late Wednesday, after Chattanooga and Hamilton County officials called for similar details during meetings during the week.

Below are the details provided by Tennessee American spokeswoman Daphne Kirksey.

 

Has the company ever seen a water outage of this magnitude in Chattanooga?

Tennessee American Water has served the Chattanooga community for over 132 years. That said, we believe that this is the largest main break and resulting service interruption in recent history.

 

What is the company doing to prevent similar outages in the future?

It is important to understand that this main break occurred while completing the last phase of a larger improvement or resiliency project intended to enhance the operation of the water system, and that improvement project is now completed. This project enhances the ability of Tennessee American Water to maintain water service in the event of a main break or other interruption.

Tennessee American Water is currently engaged in an evaluation of the main break. Due to the complexity of the main break, the evaluation process will take time to conclude.

We make investments in our systems on a consistent basis. In fact, Tennessee American Water has invested an average of $18 million annually in capital improvements to the drinking water system over the last five years for a total of $92 million. Projects include replacing pipes, valves, hydrants and meters throughout the system.

 

What exact kind of maintenance was underway when [the main break] happened?

On Thursday evening, Sept. 12, Tennessee American Water was working on a planned project to install a valve on a 36-inch water transmission main. This new valve is an important part of a larger system improvement project.

While the valve installation was being performed, workers noticed a large amount of water beginning to surface at a location immediately adjacent to but not part of the planned improvement project. Again, the planned new valve installation was a critical aspect of a larger improvement project.

 

What exact kind of repairs were made to the broken main?

By early Saturday morning, Sept. 14, the main break repair was completed by installing a new permanent ductile iron pipe and 36-inch valve. After the repair, Tennessee American Water restored water pressure by turning valves back on and flushing hydrants to help reduce air and discoloration. This process is methodical and takes time.

By Saturday morning, Sept. 14, impacted customers in lower elevations started seeing their water pressure improve or service restored. By Sunday afternoon, Sept. 15, the highest elevations had their water service restored, which meant all Tennessee American Water customers had water at their homes and businesses.

 

Does the company have any additional details on: the cost of repairs this weekend, the water lost, the cause of the outage?

This is all part of the evaluation process underway.

 

For any of the above that don't have details, what is the process and timeline for gathering this information?

Again, due to the complexity of the main break, it will take time to conclude this evaluation process.

***

Even with the above answered, the cause, cost and total impact of the leak remains unknown.

Representatives of both the county commission and the city council have expressed concerns about the company's infrastructure following the leak, asking for further details from their respective staffs.

"I'm very, very concerned, as [District 4 Commissioner Warren] Mackey brought up, about the fragile and aging infrastructure we have throughout Hamilton County," District 8 Commissioner Tim Boyd said Wednesday, echoing concerns from his colleague and some current and former city officials. "And we have a monopoly, a private company providing most, if not all, the water to this critical area of our county, the downtown area of Chattanooga."

Both the city and county governments have begun to evaluate their respective emergency response and shut down expenses from the outage, but do not yet have any available figures.

While neither entity has said it will pursue legal action against the company, both governments have acknowledged that it's an option.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @sarahgtaylor.

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