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Answers in Rock Falls water shutdown won’t come easily

City’s search for cause of failure ongoing, complex

Rock Falls Mayor Bill Wescott speaks during a news conference Feb. 14.
Rock Falls Mayor Bill Wescott speaks during a news conference Feb. 14.

ROCK FALLS – Nine days after a wastewater infrastructure failure took down the city’s water supply service for 18 hours, an investigation continues into the exact cause of the failure.

Everyone from the city engineers at Willett, Hofmann & Associates to a multitude of subcontractors involved when the plant was built have been called to examine the lift station.

The answers might not come quickly, or at all, city officials say.

“We may never know exactly what happened,” Mayor Bill Wescott said. “We’re conducting a thorough investigation, and the good, the bad, or ugly, we’ll let people know.”

The sheer number of suppliers and subcontractors used on the nearly $30 million water reclamation project could make it more difficult to put together the puzzle pieces. Willett, Hofmann engineer and Vice President Matthew Hansen estimates that number to be well into the 20s.

The raw sewage pump station went online July 28, 2011, followed the next day by the wastewater treatment facility. The city had struggled for years to meet increasingly strict federal regulations at the old facility.

Rock Falls was under court order to put a new sewage system in place by December 2011. In 2004, the city and its engineers started working toward that end. They worked with the Illinois attorney general’s office and state regulators to reduce the fines assessed until the new facility was built.

The city’s engineers have been responding to whatever officials need from them. This is somewhat new territory for some of the people at the engineering firm as well, Hansen said.

“With sanitary sewer systems, you can expect to be dealing with backup and wet-weather situations, but I’ve never seen anything like this on this scale,” he said.

The wastewater and water situations are regaining some sense of normalcy. From the wastewater side of things, all four pumps at the lift station are running. By day’s end Tuesday, the pumps had been taken out, examined and cleaned, after being submerged in 190,000 gallons of raw sewage that had backed up at the station.

“The pumps are all back in and the motors running,” Wescott said. “There are no more problems there.”

As a safeguard, workers were staffing the lift station around the clock to make sure everything was running smoothly.

“Our primary concern was to get everything up and going again, and make sure there wouldn’t be a repeat of anything that had failed,” City Administrator Robbin Blackert said. “The pump station is working like it’s supposed to – alarms, generators, pumps, everything.”

Citizen questions

Wescott says he has fielded many questions as to what exactly happened on Feb. 13. A few came from Rock Falls resident Troy Ebenezer during the Feb. 18 City Council meeting.

Ebenezer wondered why, after the noon power outage, no one was in place at the lift station to check to see whether the equipment was back online.

“When the outage occurred, a couple of sewer workers were outdoors working, and two more were off-site,” Blackert said. “Everything in the new plant worked immediately. There was no neglect on the workers’ part.”

With the integration technology now used in water and sewer plants, it is no longer general practice to continually man those stations, Wescott said.

“A large percentage of cities our size don’t man sewer or water plants 24/7,” the mayor said. “The alarm systems notify the people responsible.”

Blackert went on to explain that all of the fail-safes at the pumphouse are on the back end of the system. City officials find it perplexing that multiple levels of alarms and the generators failed.

“This was a double failure,” Blackert said. “We’re very concerned as to why the alarms and generators failed.”

Despite the failures at the pump station, a bright spot was that everything functioned properly at the new treatment plant, including its alarms.

Ebenezer also asked city officials why water from the Rock Falls Armory wasn’t used.

Wescott said the Armory was willing to help, but by the time the first sergeant went through the proper channels of command, donations had been made by Walmart, the Sterling Kroger and Culligan of Dixon.

“We’ve used their water before for special events, but they have to go through headquarters in Springfield,” Wescott said. “Command told him to exhaust all available supplies first.”

By that time, Walmart had offered four semis full of bottled water, not only filling the need faster, but making it easier for residents to use.

Water main breaks still a problem

On the water side, 18 homes, in different locations, had frozen service lines after the water was restored. Officials say they believe that situation was probably related to having had the water shut off for a long period of time.

Water main breaks continue in Rock Falls, as is the case in many other cities in winter weather conditions. Those are unrelated to the water being shut off.

Since Nov. 1, the city has had 14 water main breaks, including an incident that forced 63 people out of Civic Plaza II.

Now that thawing season is here with a vengeance, officials expect the water main breaks to continue.

“We’ll continue to have problems with the water side,” Wescott said. “All of those main breaks have boil order potential.”

Despite the inconvenience experienced by Rock Falls residents, city officials say they are surprised by how understanding people have been.

“It obviously is a situation you would rather not go through, but this has turned out to be one of the most positive experiences I’ve had since I’ve been at City Hall,” City Clerk Eric Arduini said. “People could have been negative, but instead, most of them are saying ‘thank you.’”

Now that the crisis has passed, city officials don’t plan to let up on the investigation end, Blackert said.

“These modern systems are very high-tech, so this could take some time,” she said. “We could try to pacify people, but we want to get to the root cause. We’re going to put forth every effort to determine what it was.”

Show of appreciation

The city will formally recognize those who helped during the water shutdown emergency by presenting certificates during the next Rock Falls City Council meeting at 6:30 p.m. March 4, at City Hall, 603 W. 10th St.

The City Council meeting can be viewed live on cable Channel 5.

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