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Baker: WSSC needs to answer 'serious questions'

Thursday - 7/18/2013, 9:07pm  ET

WSSC replacement pipe (AP)
A replacement water pipe sits at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission site where workers removed dirt from around a defective water main in District Heights, Md. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

WASHINGTON - Now that a water crisis -- that would have left parts of southern Prince George's County without water for days -- has been averted, County Executive Rushern Baker says the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission needs to answer questions about its operations.

First, Baker wants to know when the utility knew water service would not be disrupted to roughly 150,000 residential and commercial customers.

Baker first learned on Wednesday afternoon the outage might not occur.

"That's a grave concern to me, which is why we're going to ask some serious, serious questions of WSSC," he says.

He tells WTOP the county needs to know more about WSSC's plans of action in the future.

"What can we do so businesses that lost millions of dollars don't go through this again?"

WSSC General Manager Jerry N. Johnson tells Fox 5 a catastrophic failure of the huge water main would have resulted in the loss of hundreds of millions of gallons of water and would have been devastating for businesses.

WSSC warned customers about the possible failure Monday night and mandatory water restrictions went in place Tuesday night. Work is still underway to complete the repairs and ensure drinking water isn't contaminated.

In response to Baker's concerns, WSSC spokesman Jim Neustadt tells WTOP the agency was working with what it knew was certain.

"We were operating with the best information we had at the time," Neustadt says.

WSSC officials had no confidence that the valve could be opened, he says, adding "We had worked on it and nothing had happened."

But on Wednesday afternoon, WSSC managed to divert the water from the failing 54-inch pipe, thanks to two technicians who closed a key valve. The technicians, Brad Destelhorst and Tom Ecker, stood in water for 8 to 12 hours to rebuild the frozen valve, officials say.

Neustadt describes what the technicians did as a "Hail Mary."

"We had a pipe that was ready to go," he says. "We did not think we had any other options."

Once the repairs are finished, Neustadt says the WSSC will talk with Baker.

Baker says another key issue WSSC needs to address is its aging infrastructure.

"Where are other places in Prince George's County and Montgomery County that we have valves that are in the same condition as the one we saw in Prince George's County?" Baker asks.

The county executive says WSSC's answers will help the county with future growth.

"We've got to be very cautious of the fact we have to look at these aging pipes and things in the southern part of the county, especially as we do development," Baker says.

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WTOP's Kristi King contributed to this story. Follow @kingWTOP and @WTOP on Twitter.

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