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Sewage main leaks again

Something's wrong with the force main that carries waste away from the Hamburg area east of town.

It is supposed to work quietly and out of sight, but it has the well-deserved reputation as the bad boy of Lexington sewers.

When the North Elkhorn force main broke last month, it took nearly six days to fix because a part had to be ordered. More than 1.1 million gallons spilled into the North Fork of Elkhorn Creek. The estimated repair cost, including hauling away sewage-soaked soil afterward: nearly $250,000.

Now it's broken again. This break, across Liberty Road from the last one, was discovered Tuesday afternoon. It doesn't appear to be as bad, and a relatively small amount of waste spilled before a pump was set up to send the leaking material to a manhole. A repair was expected to begin at 11 p.m. Wednesday.

But two breaks just a couple of weeks apart are just the tip of the spilled sewage story.

City officials say the 24-inch pipe, built in 1980 through what was then farm fields and pastures by Mays Construction Co. of Williamsburg, has broken nine times in the past dozen years.

Is there something fundamentally wrong here?

"Clearly there is," said Charles Martin, director of the city's Division of Water Quality. "I don't know how I could logically say there isn't, because we don't have these kind of problems with other pipes."

When the leaking pipe was uncovered for last month's repair, Martin said he noticed it was not sitting on a crushed stone bed, as has been the standard for such projects since before the line was laid.

But he wasn't willing to draw conclusions from that one site.

"I wasn't around when it was put in, and I don't know anyone who was," he said.

But, he said, he is glad the pipe's days are numbered: By the end of the year, about 75 percent of the sewage that passes through the North Elkhorn Pump Station will flow through a new line to the city's Town Branch Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The rest will continue to flow from the pump station to the East Hickman Wastewater Treatment Plant until five smaller pump stations are replaced, probably by the end of 2011.

Then all the area's sewage will go to the Town Branch plant. At that point, Martin said, he will be able to do an assessment of the old empty force main to see if it is reliable enough to use.

The recent break is at Star Shoot Parkway and Liberty Road, near the Eastland Church of God. A large hole had been dug over the leak Wednesday. A pump was sending leaking sewage through a temporary pipe and into a manhole in a front yard on Nickwood Trail in the Cottages of Liberty Woods neighborhood.

This month's repair is happening sooner because when a repair part was needed last month, two were ordered.

And this repair is being handled somewhat differently.

It will again take place overnight because the normal flow through the force main, about 2,000 gallons a minute, drops to 1,000 to 1,500 gallons then. The North Elkhorn Pump Station will again be shut down during the repair.

But pumping air into the sewage before it goes into the creek didn't seem to help much last time. Tests of water in the creek still showed low levels of the dissolved oxygen that is essential to aquatic life. This time, the sewage will be quickly treated with chlorine to kill the bacteria that consume oxygen, then dechlorinated.

Fire hydrants were turned on all night last time to dilute the sewage, but that also didn't help much, and caused Kentucky American Water's storage tanks to reach worrisome low levels, Martin said.

He planned to be looking in the hole when sewage was no longer covering the pipe early Thursday morning to see whether it was sitting on crushed rock.

With the troubling history of the pipe, Martin was looking ahead.

"I would prefer for this not to happen any more," he said. "But we're going to go ahead and order another part and keep it in the shop."

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