As Tennessee American Water Company slowly releases details of the debilitating water leak and outage that affected some 35,000 connections in northern and downtown Chattanooga earlier this month, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke is vowing to hold the company's feet to the fire, condemning its lack of communication throughout the process and calling for resiliency and accountability from the private water company.
The company released a statement late Thursday, two weeks after the leak that left parts of the city without water for as long as three days, providing no further details on the cause or cost of the leak, but adding that it will seek a third part engineering firm to aid in the investigation of the leak, which occurred roughly 20 feet from the site of ongoing preventative maintenance on a nearby main.
Both the city and Hamilton County poured resources and contributed personnel to the nearly around-the-clock response efforts during the weekend and into Monday, following the Sept. 12 leak, but have not been provided any deeper information on the cause or impact of the outage.
"I was in contact with the Tennessee American Water president and staff constantly throughout the outage incident, and met with their leadership late last week. I made it exceedingly clear that I had serious concerns over compensation issues that customers — including the City of Chattanooga — faced due to this outage, and I reiterated that their communications with the public throughout this period have been inadequate," Berke said Thursday, adding that he had pressured the company for but not received information on the cause of the break. "Tennessee American Water knows I'm holding them accountable for what happened in our city  days ago, and we will certainly be meeting regularly, as they continue to look into the cause. Simply put, we need to know what happened, why it happened, and what they're doing to make sure it does not happen again. That information will guide any actions taken by my administration moving forward."
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While Berke does not yet have the cause for the outage, he told the Times Free Press that ensuring strength of the utility going forward will be a priority.
"We need to ensure that all of our public utilities and systems are resilient. Earlier this year at the State of the City, I talked about being prepared for any type of event — weather or otherwise — and this outage proves that resiliency needs to be a priority for our city, county and region," Berke said.
When asked if TAWC is considering any redundancy or interconnectivity plans — like the one presented to but not adopted by the company under former Mayor Ron Littlefield— to prevent large outages in the event of future leaks, the company did not directly address any specific future plans.
"Tennessee American Water regularly evaluates its assets and operations, and considers options to enhance the resiliency of our system including but not limited to the feasibility of interconnections. We meet with our neighboring utilities, including Hixson and Eastside Utility Districts, and provide assistance to each other when needed. We also regularly work with city staff to coordinate and share upcoming major projects," Director of Operations Kevin Kruchinski said. "Recently, we have completed several resiliency projects that have further strengthened the water system. The planned valve work that was being performed the evening of the main break is a part of our piping improvement project. The installation of this valve allows us to turn off water at a main transmission line in case of emergency or to perform system upgrades."
Despite the lack of information on future projects, a spokeswoman for the company says it is committed to investing in the water system.
"Another phase of the resiliency project we recently completed is the installation of additional transmission bypass lines near the water treatment plant. These additional lines allow water to bypass, or divert, from one main transmission line to another transmission line. This gives us the ability to isolate large transmission lines in an effort to maintain water service," External Affairs Manager Daphne Kirksey added. "Tennessee American Water makes investments in its systems on a consistent basis. We have 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 invested. Projects include replacing pipes, valves, hydrants, and meters throughout the system."
The city, county and company are still in the process of estimating the financial impact of the water leak and outage.
Representatives from the city told the Times Free Press that while they are working on cost estimates from all affected departments, a full report likely will not be available.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @sarahgtaylor.