Unearthing, replacing broken sewer lines could take 2 weeks

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An estimated 300,000 gallons of untreated sewage overflowed from two pipes late Sunday afternoon toward Buckeye Brook, prompting a frantic rush to contain the overflow and prevent it from backing up into homes as far as a quarter mile away.

The situation was under control by 10:30 or 11 p.m. that night, and the system is fully operational, but it’s going to be at least two weeks before permanent repairs are completed, Janine Burke-Wells, director of the Warwick Sewer Authority, said Wednesday.

In response to the overflow, the Department of Environmental Management closed Conimicut Point Beach and the upper bay to shellfishing south from Conimicut Point to the Northern tip of Prudence Island. The Sewer Authority chlorinated the overflow when it was discovered.

At the root of the problem are two pipes that date back to 1978 near the Cedar Swamp pumping station at the end of Cedar Swamp Road off Sandy Lane. The WSA was in the process Wednesday of “drying” the two sections of pipe totaling about 100 feet and 22 feet below ground before they can be excavated and replaced. Temporary above ground piping as well as diesel pumps have been installed to circumvent the problem areas.

Burke-Wells considers the city “lucky” for the problem to occur when it did. She noted that the situation occurred – first detected when wastewater flooded the basement of a home – at a time when flow is down. It could have been much worse at a peak period or during a downpour when storm water adds to the system.

Burke-Wells doesn’t doubt that wastewater reached the brook. The extent of that impact was undergoing assessment Wednesday as Ed Mathias of the authority took water samples from above Cedar Swamp as well as below stream to Mill Creek.

“The water looks clean,” said Mathias. He said he found no evidence, such as toilet paper and other debris, that might have come from the sewer.

Burke-Wells speculates the older pipes, which are made of concrete, deteriorated because of the build-up of hydrogen sulfide gas in the system. The gas can collect because of low flows and stagnant conditions.

Burke-Wells believes the pipes collapsed, causing a blockage and “super charging” the system, resulting in the backups. She put the cost of “stabilizing the system” with the installation of bypasses at $208,000. She expects some of those costs, including what it takes to repair private property, to be reimbursed by insurance payments. She said the problem is nowhere as bad as when the authority had to make extensive repairs to the pumping station and pipes in the immediate area several years ago.

The Buckeye Brook Coalition issued an advisory for people to avoid contact with brook waters below stream from Cedar Swamp to Mill Creek and Conimicut Point.

“Until further notice, the Buckeye Brook Coalition suggests that all recreation in these areas, including swimming, fishing, boating and kayaking, should be avoided. People also should not ingest water or eat fish/shellfish from these areas. Pets can also be affected by exposure to the high bacteria levels, and thus owners should not allow pets to drink or swim in the aforementioned waterways,” reads the advisory issued by Michael Zarum, Coalition president.

George Shuster, who lives on Mill Creek, said Wednesday he didn’t learn of the incident until well after it happened.

“There needs to be a way to let people know,” he said, noting that people were fishing and walking in creek waters Sunday evening.

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