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Utility ripped for water-crisis silence

by I.C. Murrell | February 22, 2021 at 4:21 a.m.
Liberty Utilities, which serves Pine Bluff, is shown in this undated photo.

Community leaders and concerned citizens expressed frustration over the amount of time it took Liberty Utilities officials to advise them of water line breaks and leaks that compromised the Pine Bluff water system during a public meeting at the utility's State Street offices Sunday evening.

Many said they were not notified until late Thursday or early Friday of changes in the water pressure that has affected Jefferson Regional Medical Center and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, among other entities.

An attendee directly asked Liberty Vice President Mike Beatty why information wasn't disseminated from the time the event occurred.

"Thursday afternoon, we noticed that water pressures were going down, and Thursday evening, information was sent," Beatty said.

Liberty sent detailed information about the problem to customers Thursday evening, but Mayor Shirley Washington told Beatty on Sunday the information was a lot to digest amid rumors that customers' water service would be shut off and asked that she be notified ahead of time in the future.

"If I had seen that first, I'd have said that's too much information," Washington said, adding citizens typically either don't read or misinterpret the details.

Beatty said Liberty officials reached out to the community again Friday with a secondary announcement and called for conservation efforts.

In updating the public Sunday, Beatty reported the water system has avoided a boil water advisory.

"I think we'll continue to do that," he said.

Liberty has 24 employees, including 11 who have come to Pine Bluff from other locations, actively looking for leaks and taking water pressure data across the system in an attempt to identify the cause of the leaks and water line breaks, Beatty said. As of 6 p.m. Sunday, 110 residential leaks were found and five leaks were found in fire protection systems.

An active leak in front of the State Street office was fixed with the help of Pine Bluff Wastewater Utility, which, Beatty said, excavated the faulty pipe.

He added Jefferson Regional was the main focus of Liberty's efforts to restore water pressure. The hospital, as well as the university, have dealt with heating and sanitation issues related to the lack of pressure during last week's snowstorm.

Beatty said all three of Liberty's water plants in Pine Bluff are pumping a "positive" amount of water pressure to keep any contamination out of the water.

He said Plant 1 is pumping 12.3 pounds per square inch (psi), Plant 2 is 32.9 psi and Plant 3 is 22.1 psi, but on a normal basis the plants pump 50 to 60 psi on average across the entire system. Pressed about the low rate at Plant 1, Beatty said two filter systems that were down for months are being brought on line and should be active by Tuesday, pending bacteria tests from the Arkansas Department of Health scheduled for today.

Liberty technicians also are segregating Plant 2 from the others in hopes of adding more pressure to the hospital.

"The filter systems are complete, full of water," Beatty said. "... We expect to get the filters in running mode by Tuesday."

Beatty gave that timeframe after Saracen Casino Chief Market Officer Carlton Saffa pressed Beatty about a quote a spokesman gave to local media about a main pump rumored to be replaced.

The spokesman reportedly said "Everything is good. Everything is fine."

"Two people have gone into cardiac arrest," Saffa said, although he didn't indicate whether they were patients at the hospital. "The revenues lost at Saracen Casino are millions. And you're saying: 'Everything is good. Everything is fine?' When do you anticipate usable pressure for Pine Bluff?"

Whereas Liberty usually pumps out upward of 7 million gallons of water per day, that amount has reached 14 million during the snowstorm, Beatty said. He also called for residents to turn off dripping faucets so water can be reserved.

Customers typically let faucets drip in order to avoid freezing pipes during extremely cold weather.

The university reported about 120 students who live on campus have been moved to hotels in Little Rock for temporary housing.

UAPB Chancellor Laurence B. Alexander asked Beatty what the worst case scenario would be if the system malfunctions and for how long.

"Until we find where the water is leaving the system, we have to stop the bleeding somehow," Beatty said. "I don't have a good answer."

Alexander responded calmly: "That's not a good answer."

Beatty did say Liberty officials are talking with university leaders to identify what the most critical needs are.

Jefferson County Sheriff Lafayette Woods asked where public safety would be prioritized in pressure restoration, stressing his office doesn't have the luxury of letting prisoners out in public until the matter is resolved.

"Those who need to be locked up are being locked up," Woods said. "I can't relocate prisoners. It needs to be on a high priority so prisoners have access to sanitary measures like drinking water, flushing toilets and taking showers."

Beatty answered by saying Liberty is taking a three-pronged effort to identify leaks, including responding to leak calls, taking pressures across the city and narrowing the search for a main cause and segregating one plant from the other two and taking data from there.

"If we have significant pressure from one of those plants, we know the leaks are outside of the plant area," Beatty said.


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