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Independent review panel to probe water outages
Wednesday, 18 January 2023 23:03

From Staff Reports

Asheville City Council established an independent review committee on Jan. 10 to investigate the causes of the recent water outages and what measures need to be taken to prevent them from recurring, Asheville television station WLOS (News 13) reported Jan. 10.

Thousands of customers were left without water from Dec. 24 through Jan. 4, when the southern and western regions of the Asheville regional system was beset with major outages.

The problems began when temperatures plunged to zero on the morning of Dec. 24. Water draining into the settling basins at the Mills River intake froze, knocking the facility offline and breaking a number of water lines across the system.

“The purpose of the committee is to review the outages and provide a comprehensive account of what happened,” News 13 noted. “That will include assessing the city’s operational and emergency response and communication efforts and reviewing what changes should be made to the infrastructure.”

The committee will include nine members as follows:

• Two residential water customers

• One commercial water customer

• One emergency response professional/ disaster specialist

• Two communications professionals

• Three subject matter experts in public water systems

Whats more, two of the appointments will be made by Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.

The Daily Planet contacted Mayor Esther Manheimer seeking a statement or interview regarding city’s actions during the water outage, but did not receive a response from her by deadline.

The newspaper also reached out for a statement from or interview with Councilwoman Kim Roney, who has been highly critical of the city’s water system response, but did not receive a response from her by this edition’s deadline.

“While the committee was just established Tuesday, the city said some work has already begun,” News 13 reported, adding that “Assistant City Manager Ben Woody said city leaders have been working to minimize the risk of severe water outages happening again. 

“‘Staff has already begun the process of replacing sealing and closing and doing more to these components and pieces of equipment to make sure that they can maintain heat and prevent moisture intrusion,’ Woody explained,” according to News 13.

“City Manager Debra Campbell said that while city leaders have heard that people do not think the city has been investing in infrastructure, $72.8 million has been allocated for investments in the Water Capital Improvement Plan.

“Still, many residents at Tuesday’s (Jan. 10th’s) meeting were skeptical.

“One resident said she wasn’t sure she trusted the idea of a review committee, because it seems committee recommendations are often pushed to the side.

“She hopes that won’t be the case in this situation.

“Now that the committee has been established, the council will appoint members at its Jan. 24 meeting.

“The county will appoint its members at its Feb. 7 meeting.

“And 30 days from the establishment of the committee, it will be expected to provide an analysis and share updates with the council.

“The first update from the committee is expected to be presented to the city council before the end of March.

“Council member Kim Roney raised the question of what will happen in the meantime, as the city will likely see freezing temperatures again.

“Woody said he is confident that outages like the ones in December and earlier this month won’t happen again.

“Following the first update in March, the committee will then be expected to have a final written report and be ready to present it to the council by the middle of May,” News 13 noted.

While it said that several Democratic legislators with connections to the Asheville areas were relatively gentle in their critique of the city’s response to the water crisis in statements to the Asheville Citizen Times. the newspaper stated in a Jan. 5 story that several Republicans, including state Senator-Tim Moffitt, R-Hendersonville, who once represented a district covered by Asheville’s water works, were highly critical of the water system fiasco.

The ACT noted that, “at that time (when Moffit represented part of Buncombe), as a state House member, Moffitt said the system should be regional and got a law passed taking the water department and its assets from Asheville’s control and giving it to the Buncombe Metropolitan Sewerage District. But Asheville sued, appealing the case all  the way to the N.C. Supreme Court, which in 2016 ruled the takeover illegal.

“Now, six years later, Moffitt no longer represents a district in the system. But he says he is hearing directly from many small business-owners who had to shut their doors because of the crisis.

“‘Right now we have a multi-jurisdictional water system that’s being managed by one city. And unlike with a system that would be run by a regional, independent and professional public enterprise authority, there is no real accountability,’” the ACT quoted him as saying.

Moffitt said the problems were anticipated ‘a decade ago’ and that he tried to reform the system. ‘Unfortunately, now we have had to live with the consequences,’” the ACT reported.

Notwithstanding, U.S. Rep. Chuck Edwards, R-Hendersonville said he spoke with Manheimer “to reiterate the valid concerns and frustrations of countless Asheville water users, get an update on the restoration of services, and offer my support.”

Edwards told the ACT that the mayor asked for nothing specific from state or federal officials.

“My office will be monitoring the ensuing investigations into how this turned into such a catastrophic event and how it was managed. Asheville city leadership cannot allow this to happen again. Perhaps it’s time to reopen the conversation of a regional water authority,” he said.

Elsewhere, state Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Morganton, a third Republican legislator representing part of the area, also castigated city officials for their mishandling of the water system. (Daniel’s 46th District covers eastern Buncombe County ― which is within the water system ― as well as McDowell and Burke counties, which are outside it.)

“The only time there should be extended disruptions to these services is in the case of natural disasters,” Daniel told the ACT. “The Asheville situation does not fall into that category.”

In finishing his fiery critique of the Asheville water system with a bang, Daniel asserted, “What separates the U.S. from Third World nations has always been our ability to provide safe and reliable utilities to our citizens,” according to the ACT.

On Jan. 11, following restoration of water service throughout the system, city Water Resources Director David Melton told the ACT in an interview that it was he who made the decision on Dec. 26 to cut the south off from water — and when asked he would make the decision to isolate the south again, he replied, “Absolutely.”

His decision was an attempt to forestall a boil water advisory being issued systemwide, in areas including hospitals, medical facilities, schools — and even more businesses, Melton told the ACT. 



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