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WSSC water mains among nation's most likely to burst

Monday - 6/24/2013, 12:49pm  ET

water main cars (WTOP/Kristi King)
When a 54-inch water main burst at the Hampton Business Center in Capitol Heights, Md., on Jan. 24, 2011, portions of the Capital Beltway flooded and were closed for seven hours. Many cars and businesses were destroyed. (WTOP/Kristi King)

WASHINGTON - The metro D.C. area has some of the most accident-prone water mains in the nation.

A Washington Post survey of large utilities reveals only Detroit has more miles of problematic concrete water pipes than the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which has customers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

WSSC has 350 miles of mains that have shown they can explode without warning, and those concrete pipes make up the backbone of WSSC's 5,600-mile water distribution system that provides drinking water to 1.8 million people, according to the Post.

Much of the pipe was laid during a building boom in the Maryland suburbs that started about 40 years ago. At that time, industry standards for pipe strength were much weaker than they are currently.

Many of the pipes susceptible to problems are huge and are as tall as 8 feet high.

In some of the more recent and memorable examples of those pipes failing, rescue boats had to pull people from cars on River Road, a burst main blasted out the walls of a businesses in a Capitol Heights strip mall and trees fell into a hole created by a broken main along Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase.

The WSSC is working on a plan for how to best protect homes and businesses within 80-foot danger zones of potentially problematic pipes. The water company also has acoustic equipment monitoring many pipes for breaks, and robots are about to begin inspections.

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