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Environmentby Mark Reutter2:07 pmOct 25, 20130

My close encounter with a Baltimore water pipe

Discovering “tuberculation.” Or what we may be drinking when we drink city water.

Above: A cross section of the water pipe that broke in my neighborhood. (Mark Reutter)

I am not a bottled water kind of guy, but after seeing – close up and personal – the condition of the water pipe serving my neighborhood, I’m heading straight to the Deer Park aisle from now on.

My moment of enlightenment (or rather revulsion) followed a 20-hour stretch last weekend when my home, and dozens more, found themselves without water.

Not a drip between last Friday, starting at 2 p.m., and 10 a.m. on Saturday.

And, of course, no notice by the city of the shutdown, even though it turned out to be a scheduled repair of a leaking line – “our line” – that had been belching up water from a manhole for at least two weeks.

Waiting on the City

We’re hardened veterans here in North Baltimore. We experience H2O-less conditions about every other month, usually for two or three hours late in the evening.

But when my faucets ran dry last Friday (fortunately, there was no baby in the house or guests coming for dinner), I began calling the city.

After two calls to 311 and an email exchange with a DPW spokesman, I pieced together the information that a “valve truck” had shut off our 2-inch main in order to repair a “broken manifold.”

When will service be restored, I asked the 311 lady?

“I have no idea,” she helpfully replied.

Obviously, our fate was in the hands of the manifold gods.

A view of the water pipe from the opposite end, exposed to sunlight for the first year in 65?, 100? years. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

A view of the water pipe from the opposite end, exposed to sunlight for the first time in 65 or 100 years? (Mark Reutter)

A dozen hours later, the toilets began to gurgle and the kitchen spigot coughed up some yellow phlegm that resembled water.

Within a few minutes, the liquid got clearer and the flow steadier. I decided to hike up the street and find out what was going on.

Never Inspected

Before getting to the scene of the break, let’s review a few things the city likes to say about its water.

It’s “award winning,” we’re told, and meets all of the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act for quality control at the Montebello and Ashburton water treatment plants.

But this same water then leaves the treatment plants and enters miles and miles of pipe to get to my home and yours.

And here’s the rub: “Over 95% of the city’s water mains have been in service for 65 years without inspection,” the Bureau of Water and Wastewater says. “Many are approaching 100 years of service.”

On Saturday I found out exactly what those words meant.

A piece of the old pipe was lying by the street, a piece so damn corroded it’s a wonder any water came through it at all.

Sclerotic Pipes

Jagged mounds of metal protruded from all sides of the pipe’s interior. Liver red and gooey brown, with purple highlights and dirty yellow streaks. It made me think of those angiogram images of the sclerotic arteries of people on the verge of a fatal heart attack.

This is “tuberculation,” the formation of corrosion on the inside of cast-iron pipes that’s been a known hazard in old water systems since the 1950s, when scientists at the University of Illinois exploded the myth that cast iron doesn’t easily corrode.

It does. Tuberculation comes from the interaction between iron and the “chemistry” of our water, Art Shapiro, Baltimore’s water engineer, tells me. Among the factors are the pH and alkalinity of the liquid flowing through the pipes, along with calcium and the chlorine injected to make it safe.

Thus, our award-winning water slalomed and zigzagged around these foul-looking blisters – picking up particles of brown sediment that now covered my hands – until something cracked (that manifold, I guess), and the city was forced to replace this rotted remnant with a couple of feet of clean pipe.

Health officials consider rust and iron in water not to be a health hazard. According to Shapiro, you get more iron from a supplement pill than from the sediment that courses through the city’s pipes.

Somehow, these words – plus DPW’s factoid that city water is 255 times cheaper than bottled water – hold little comfort. I keep flashing back to those liver-red tubercles. I’m through. From now on, it’s bottled H2O for me.

A new segment of pipe heading toward a neighbor's house. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

A new section of pipe heading toward a neighbor’s house. (Mark Reutter)

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