Repairs to a major leak on a transmission main that delivers raw water to hundreds of thousands of customers in the Cape Fear region are nearly complete.
The roughly $2.3 million emergency fix is replacing about 200 feet of a ‘90s-era 48-inch ductile iron pipe owned by the Lower Cape Fear Water and Sewer Authority (LCFWASA), the region’s raw water supplier. As of Monday, there were roughly 30 feet left to replace. Recent king tides had flooded the swampy site of the repairs, delaying progress by a week or two.
In the next few days, the last of the replacement pipeline will be laid; the project will wrap up once testing is complete and a bypass is removed by the end of the month, according to LCFWASA director Tim Holloman.
LCFWASA’s pipeline pulls raw water from the Cape Fear River in Riegelwood and delivers it to Brunswick County, Pender County and Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA), which each utility then treats before delivering to customers. While the utilities also have access to secondary groundwater sources, LCFWASA’s pipeline is the primary supplier.
Around Nov. 5, 2021, a section of the pipe settled and became disjointed, causing the loss of about 30 to 35 million gallons of water a day (this represents about three-fourths of the line’s total 45 million-gallon-a-day maximum capacity). In all, roughly half a billion gallons of water leaked out of the separated joint before the temporary bypass was in place.
November’s leak was the system’s third: the first occurred in the ‘90s; the second was prompted by Hurricane Matthew in 2016, with floodwater prompting a pipe rupture.
Though it was an expensive and inconvenient break, the utilities and the region lucked out: It occurred in an area that was accessible to heavy machinery required to install the fix and it happened during the off-season. Had the joint separated over the summer, when beach town populations balloon, the water providers would not have been able to keep up with peak demand, meaning there would not be enough water to go around. (Even without a leak, the system exceeded its operational capacity in 2019, according to Port City Daily, but was still able to meet demand.)
“If this happened under the river… I would use the word catastrophic. It would be devastation,” Tony Boahn, McKim & Creed’s vice president, told the LCFWASA board last month. A river-based pipe break would have taken months to repair – not weeks, he said, presenting a logistical nightmare for engineers and contractors.
Two weeks after the leak was discovered, a temporary 600-foot bypass made of high-density polyethylene was in place, diverting water around the pipe failure, allowing contractors to inspect it without water gushing out. Once the bypass was secure, the utilities dropped their temporary water conservation notices.
The break occurred in a wetland area just north of the former DAK Americas site in Leland, before the pipeline crosses under the Cape Fear River. Contractors had to makeshift a road so equipment could access the remote, but still reachable, site.
When crews arrived on site to fix the leak, they discovered a cut stump, just inches from the joint separation, and nearly a foot of root mass wrapped around the pipe. It was located on wet and sloshy soils, unsuitable for this type of infrastructure.
Boahn told the LCFWASA board removing stumps was “pipe-laying 101.” With no firm support installed around the pipe – which was bordered by decomposing organic matter – it wasn’t a matter of if it would fail, but when, he said.
“I can tell you there is no way in the world we should ever allow a pipe to be laid like this,” he said.
Board members inquired about potentially holding the original contractor legally responsible. Holloman, LCFWASA’s executive director, told the Wilmington Business Journal the utility didn't know who installed the pipe. "It's been over 30 years," he said. "There's so many other factors in there. We didn't pursue that."
Holloman, LCFWASA’s executive director, told board members at its Monday meeting that it’s unlikely insurance or grants would cover the expense. “This is a maintenance issue,” he said. Costs are being fronted by Brunswick County for now (even though the leak occurred downstream from Brunswick’s plant, the county helps manage LCFWASA’s operations); the utilities still haven’t determined how the expense will be shared.
Repair costs have run between $2.2 million and $2.4 million thus far, according to Holloman. Brunswick County commissioners approved spending up to $2.8 million with State Utilities Contractors Inc. on the repair in November. “There is not a running total; when the contractors submit a bill, the county reviews it to our records for payment in accordance with the agreement and appropriated funds,” a county spokesperson wrote in an email.
Officials were wary of the risk the pipe poses, especially in the nearly mile-long section that traverses the river, identified by McKim & Creed as a critical area. Video inspections of the offline 200-foot section showed movement and misalignment resulting from significant settlement over the years (further video inspection of the rest of the line is not possible unless water stops flowing). Pressure issues were also noted.
Boahn recommended installing a parallel line along this entire section, or at the least, paralleling along strategic portions. The parties are exploring costs and potential options but no plans are in place.
In October, a roughly 14-mile parallel water main was installed between LCFWASA’s intake station in Riegelwood and Brunswick County’s Northwest Water Treatment Plant. At 54 inches wide, the parallel main was primarily installed to accommodate capacity concerns, with redundancy providing an added plus. Once the new system is fully operational, both the original and new line can simultaneously pull water from the river and fill nearby storage tanks more readily, especially in peak demand conditions.
The $37.2 million project, designed by McKim & Creed and installed by Garney Companies Inc., will come in under budget and ahead of schedule, Boahn told board members Monday. CFPUA is covering about 37% of the project cost and Brunswick County is paying 63%. Pender County has until 2028 to decide whether it will use the extra capacity, which it would have to pay Brunswick County $5 million for.
Crews are currently completing interconnections between the old and new line, with work set to wrap up by the end of April. Once the interconnection work is done, the authority can put both lines into use (the old line has been offline since October so the connections could be made).
A dedication ceremony is planned for May 20.
Stay tuned for a profile on McKim & Creed vice president Tony Boahn in the Jan. 21 print issue of the Greater Wilmington Business Journal.
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