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Proposal pushes new Md. buildings back from major water pipes

Monday - 6/4/2012, 9:15am  ET

riverroad.jpg
Motorists were forced to abandon their cars after a water main break in Montgomery County in 2008. (WTOP/Markette Smith, File)

Max Smith, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - A local utility is trying to make changes to avoid the "substantial risk(s) to public safety" posed by the explosion of large water mains.

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission is holding a public hearing Wednesday on a proposal that would require new development in Montgomery and Prince George's counties to be at least 80 feet away from the largest water pipes. There are exceptions built into the proposal, including projects that get a Maryland registered professional engineer's approval.

The lines covered can burst with the force of 20 to 200 tons of dynamite because of the pressure inside. That happened most recently in Capitol Heights in January 2011, and along River Road in December 2008.

"All of us were very lucky that there was nobody who suffered any serious injuries and no deaths in any of these situations, and that's what we want to avoid in the future," says utility spokesman Jim Neustadt.

The WSSC inspects the large lines every five to seven years, and more than half of the biggest pipes now have electronic monitoring systems that operate 24/7.

"Why not back these buildings off a little bit in new construction, and give an extra safety margin for the future?" Neustadt says.

He says replacing the pipes isn't feasible for a number of reasons, including cost, and the fact that there isn't space in many places to build a parallel line. Water service would have to be cut off to large areas for the years of construction.

"We can't go back and change everything that's been done without costing literally billions of dollars and taking hundreds of years to do it," Neustadt says.

Despite the push to get new developments moved farther away from the water lines, he says anyone who lives or works within 80 feet of a line is OK because of the utility's monitoring program.

By July 2013, Neustadt says all 77 miles of WSSC's prestressed concrete cylinder pipes that are 48 inches or larger will have constant computerized monitoring.

The technology is still being developed for smaller pipes.

During Wednesday's meeting at WSSC headquarters, the commission expects to hear from developers who have problems with parts of the new plan. Commissioners could give final approval to the changes later this month.

To read the proposal, follow this link.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)