ABINGDON, Va. – The first phase of a multi-year project to replace corroding 2-inch galvanized steel pipe with pipes that are at least three times as large is nearly complete.
The $30 million, six-year project, funded primarily by a U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development grant, has long been in the works, said Robbie Cornett, general manager of the Washington County Service Authority.
More than 20 percent of the water distributed by the authority runs through the old pipe, most of which was laid between 30 and 60 years ago, Cornett said.
“Eight thousand of 20,000 customers are directly attached to this kind of pipe,” he said.
Over time, the steel has corroded, which leaves the water rust-colored, Cornett said. The pipes also can’t stand much pressure because they’re so small and have become clogged with calcium buildup.
Most of the water lost leaks out of the small galvanized steel pipes, Cornett said, and the pipes account for about 86 percent of all repaired water leaks in the system.
He said the old pipes were costing between $1.3 million and $1.5 million each year to maintain.
“The pipes literally just fall apart,” he said. “It’s been a long time overdue for replacement.”
The first phase replaced pipes in Glade Spring, Abingdon, and the west and central part of the county, including Lowry Hills, John Battle High School and areas adjacent to Lee Highway from Interstate 81’s Exit 10 to the Bristol line. It will be completed within the next month, Cornett said.
Where possible, fire hydrants are being installed along the line. The old pipes couldn’t sustain the pressure for fire flow, Cornett said.
The next step, also anticipated to take about two years, will begin soon after bids are accepted for the work. That phase will fill in the gaps between Abingdon and Glade Spring and Abingdon and Bristol along the I-81 and Lee Highway corridor, Cornett said. It will also replace old lines north from Bristol along Gate City Highway.
The last phase will replace the lines throughout the rest of the county.
The new pipes are either 6-inch or 8-inch, with a few 12-inch pipes in certain areas, Cornett said.
“There’s still four more years of work ahead of us,” Cornett said. “We were counting on about six years when we started.”
He said the problem began when the lines were first installed, and the people laying them didn’t plan ahead for future demands.
“The roots of the water system go back to about 1910,” he said. “The first 90 years, the focus was on extending the next line and getting water out into the countryside. Folks would take a plow, furor a trench and this size [2-inch] pipe was a size the neighborhood could handle.”
He said neighbors and community members put the pipe in themselves, which served the purpose of supplying water, but created problems later as the shallow lines are prone to freezing.
“The good thing about that is folks had public drinking water,” Cornett said, adding that the authority plans to get 50 to 75 years of use out of the new pipes. “We really believe with the initiative we’re taking now, there won’t be issues.”
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