Down the drain
Published 12:52 pm Saturday, October 11, 2014
BY CAIN MADDEN/MANAGING EDITOR
AND STEPHEN H. COWLES/STAFF WRITIER
It started as an accident — it’s something that happens all the time on demolition projects, such as the one that had been taking place at the old St. Regis building on Armory Drive. A pipe containing a valve that was holding the water flow back from the water main was ruptured.
Water started to trickle out, and it would continue to do so for a considerable amount of time, to the tune of approximately 1 million wasted gallons of water. It all started in May. Public Works Director Russ Pace says the demolition crew was trying to pull a pipe out of the wall on the corner of South College and Armory drives. Being that they were the demolition crew, Pace said he didn’t blame them, as to his knowledge, they did not know that the water mains coming into the building had not been capped off, as is required during a demolition project.
That was supposed to have been done by David Ewell, a contractor who was acting as an agent for David DiPaolo, who owns the building and began the demolition project. More on this later.
When the valve started leaking, Public Works went out but was not able to get the water to stop from the accessible levers. Pace said that the pipelines are 50- to 60-years-old, as are the valves. So what likely happened was that a valve further down the line, and underground, was allowing a trickle of water to get through.
The solution was to cap off the line, as was originally supposed to have been done but had not been completed. And since that was the property owner’s or contractor’s responsibility, Pace said the ball was back in their court to cap the lines.
Then, Utility Superintendent Steve Watson said, the lawyers got involved.
As the months went on, Watson said he, Pace and the city decided to make the best of the situation and stop the leak while they were working on a project that would improve water flow in the area. And they would deal with the legal stuff later. It was in October.
City Manager Randy Martin added that no one wanted to take accountability during this period of time.
“We were having communications with them to fix it, and apparently no one wanted to take full responsibility for that,” he said. “There was finger pointing in every direction amongst all of the parties, involving everyone but us, the city.”
As the water kept flowing, the debt that was accumulating with it started to get their attention, Martin said. The contractors asked the city if there was anything they could do to help reduce the cost, and Martin said that’s when the idea came up to install a fire hydrant in the area off of the leaking line.
So, the city got permission to go on private property and started digging on Oct. 7, Martin said. In the afternoon, they found a valve further down that could stop the flow to the site and did so. Then later, at 2 a.m., Pace said the fire hydrant was installed.
“I was trying to apply common sense to a bad situation, and knowing that fire hydrants are a premium to the fire department, that would be a quick and cheap way to get a fire hydrant,” he said. “There are several businesses in the area and the potential for, at some point in time, the old DiPaolo building to become some type of shopping center or a group of restaurants and stores. We thought it was a good use of the situation and the funds.”
Watson said from a previous reading on the building that had been shut off for non-payment, to when it was shut off Tuesday afternoon, the meter reading was for more than 1,006,000 gallons.
Watson said that’s a bill of $2,846 that the owner of the property will owe due to the wasted water. He said the wasted water was also a waste to taxpayers in a sense, as more electricity was being used to pump water and more chlorine was being used for treatment.
It’s not a substantial portion of Watson’s budget, but he said the $1,500 could have been better used elsewhere. And treated water was being wasted that could have gone to customers.
However, Watson added that the water flow would not have affected fire service had there been a fire, nor would it have been noticed by surrounding customers in their water pressure.
Watson said it wasn’t normal policy to allow a demolition permit to go through without previously capping off the water mains. But, there had been metal thefts in the building, crews already had equipment stored and the owner was looking to get it demolished so he could potentially sell the lot.
“We were just trying to be helpful so they could get moving,” Watson said.
“But this time we gave, and it ended up backfiring on us,” Pace added.
When Watson signed the demolition permit application as the water utility supervisor, he did so under the condition that Ewell would be working to cap off the water lines as the contractor started tearing down the building.
“They didn’t do it,” Watson said. “They got what they wanted and walked away.”
From there, it went to the desk of Community Development Director Donald Goodwin. One permit was issued to Macsons Inc., to do asbestus abatement. That had been completed.
The next phase was removing the building down to the concrete slab, which is the phase that was active when the pipe was ruptured. That one was also issued to Macsons Inc.
Goodwin said it was up to Watson and Public Works if they wanted to work with them on specifics of capping the lines, as for the part of the permit dealing with utilities, all he needs is a signature to grant a permit to a contractor.
“It was going to take X amount of time for them to get that done, and they wanted to get in and start taking out some steel and other metals out of the building,” Goodwin said of DiPaolo and the contractor. “They worked out a little deal to try to be business friendly.
“We talk about it a lot here, to try to be business friendly, but a lot of the time it will turn around and bite you in the butt. In a nutshell, that’s what happened here.”
Goodwin said Macsons has done their job and removed the steel, and from here, the next phase is to remove the concrete rubble.
“We were brought in to tear [the building] down to the slab,” said Stephen McCloud, owner of Macsons. “Another company was hired to do the utility disconnections.”
He added that property owner David DiPaolo hired David Ewell to work with the City in getting the water turned off.
“We haven’t been there in several months,” McCloud said, who also confirmed that his company’s work is done.
Several messages were left with McCloud later for further questions, but they were not returned. Likewise, The Tidewater News several times called Ewell, whose name and phone number were on the permit applications for the work. None of those messages were returned.
Moving forward, Watson said there are two lines that still have to be capped, and he’d make sure those are done by a contractor before signing off on that permit.
DiPaolo said he’s been in touch with the City of Franklin and the contractors “since day one.” Likewise, the City and the contractors have also been in ongoing communication.
DiPaolo said he had seen the broken water pipe and knows who is responsible, but won’t say who. Further, he said he would make no other comment.
Martin said bringing that building down was a good thing, as there is potential to sell it and develop that area. It was also an eye-sore and break-ins were a problem.
“We are glad that they are doing this,” Martin said. “Everyone wants to see this project done. The only problem is this chapter, and how long it took to get something done. The reaction time was less than desirable. Hopefully this chapter will not have a long term effect.”
Despite that, Martin said it was a good resolution in that the city got a fire hydrant where it needs one without major effort on the city’s part. And Martin said someone would be held responsible for the water bill.
“At the end of the day, we are glad we were able to get it stopped, and hopefully this will allow the next phase of demolition to proceed in the future,” Martin said.
As far as environmental concerns, Noah Hill, who is the stormwater manager with the Virginia Tidewater Region Department of Environmental Quality, said since it was treated water it should not be a problem other than the fact that it was a waste of water.
Hill said discharging water over the site is allowable under the construction general permit.