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Blairsville authority plans smoke-testing to track down sewer leaks

Jeff Himler
| Thursday, July 10, 2014, 8:55 p.m.

Where there's smoke, there could be water infiltration.

That's the premise behind the Blairsville Municipal Authority's plan to smoke-test sanitary sewer lines in the borough.

Ron Hood, executive director of the authority, told a handful of people attending a Monday informational meeting that the testing is the latest step in the authority's efforts to identify and correct places where stormwater is making its way into sanitary lines and unnecessarily adding to daily flows through those lines and ultimately at the sewage treatment plant.

Hood said, “We have issues with pipes not being able to take the flow in times of storms.” He noted heavy rainfall nearly a year ago caused sewers to back up near the Specialty Bar plant and prompted the state Department of Environmental Protection to insist that the authority take action to address the problem, which can result in untreated wastewater entering the Conemaugh River.

Hood said when excess fluid has entered the authority's sewage plant, operators have been able to contain it and treat it before releasing it into the watershed. Making sure it gets there is the challenge.

Hood said the authority has been in talks with the DEP to find ways to address the problem while placing the least possible burden on borough residents.

Previous steps have included dye-testing of sanitary lines in problem areas and a request for residents to remove downspouts that were directing water from roofs into the sewers.

Early this year, the authority also began using flow meters and an electronic rain gauge to assess the problem.

Hood noted that many older sections of town still are served by old terra cotta sewer pipes that are prone to leaks. He pointed out that a camera inserted in a line near the Specialty Bar plant uncovered leaks in both the authority main and in laterals serving individual properties located along the line.

He said the authority discovered an unmapped 189-foot “wildcat” line dating from about 1920 that is subject to infiltration.

In 2009, the authority undertook a project to eliminate areas where a single sewer line handled both storm and sanitary flows, but Hood said five such combined lines are known to still exist in the borough.

Now, the authority is ready to use smoke-testing, initially focusing on lines along Morewood, McClure and Johnson avenues; Miller Drive; Sloan Alley; Wynn and Martha streets; Oak and South East lanes; and the southern end of South Stewart Street.

Hood said smoke will be introduced in manholes and will indicate gaps or breaks in pipes in places where the smoke filters through to the ground surface.

“If we see smoke coming up through the ground anywhere on your property, you would have to replace that pipe,” between the foundation of the home and the sewer main, Hood told residents attending the meeting. He estimated that such a project could cost a property owner between $4,000 and $8,000 for lateral pipe lengths between 4 and 12 feet.

The authority will be responsible for replacing its main lines that fail the smoke test. Hood noted the authority recently replaced a line on Cornell Avenue.

Monday was set as a tentative target date for beginning the testing, but Hood noted that date might be delayed as authority officials were still trying to settle on the type of material to use to generate the smoke.

Since the smoke can possibly permeate into the interior of homes, either through basement drains or through walls, he said the authority will place notices on doors of affected residences 24 to 48 hours before testing occurs in the vicinity.

He said smoke candles, long used in such testing, create a whitish-gray smoke that can be readily tracked. But the smoke also has a sulfur-like odor and can leave behind a fine residue of dust.

Resident Sarah Piper, who attended the meeting with her young child, asked if the smoke used in the testing could be harmful to human lungs.

“There is that remote possibility,” Hood said, noting it's recommended that residents remove children and pets from affected homes while the testing is under way.

Piper also questioned whether the dust would affect electronic devices, but Hood wasn't certain on that count.

Hood said the authority is hoping to avoid such issues by instead using a liquid smoke medium, but he noted a machine needed to generate that type of smoke costs about $3,000. He said he is also looking into smoke generators that fire departments use for training purposes.

Hood said ignoring the infiltration issue is not an option as the DEP could impose fines of $10,000 per day.

“It's going to cost us no matter what we do,” he said.

Tackling the issue from another angle, the authority has been working with borough council on a proposed ordinance that would require owners to have their lines tested whenever properties change hands.

Flushing concern noted

Addressing another nagging concern for the authority, Hood asked sewage customers to refrain from flushing any items down their toilets other than toilet paper. That includes feminine hygiene products and cleansing wipes that some manufacturers advertise as being “flushable.”

Hood said such materials clump and twist together in a “ragging” effect and have repeatedly clogged different areas of the sewage treatment plant, with plant employees having to remove them by hand.

In the most recent incident, he said, the material jammed a motor on one of the plant's digester units. A crane had to be rented, at a cost of $550, to lift the 3,000-pound device before three employees spent four hours removing the gunk, at a combined labor cost of more than $400. Belts for the motor and seals also were damaged and had to be replaced.

Jeff Himler is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2910 or

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