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Sunday, February 23, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

City passes new rules regarding hydrants after Hillyard water contamination

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 29, 2020

Melissa Wick, left, and her friend, Melissa Olmos, get help carrying bottled water to their car from City of Spokane Water Department employee Mike Watson, and volunteer helper Austin Cottrill, 10, right, Tuesday, July 30, 2019 at the U.S. Post Office located at 4401 N. Freya in Spokane. The city distributed bottles of water free to residents affected by the contaminated water in the Hillyard neighborhood. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Melissa Wick, left, and her friend, Melissa Olmos, get help carrying bottled water to their car from City of Spokane Water Department employee Mike Watson, and volunteer helper Austin Cottrill, 10, right, Tuesday, July 30, 2019 at the U.S. Post Office located at 4401 N. Freya in Spokane. The city distributed bottles of water free to residents affected by the contaminated water in the Hillyard neighborhood. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

There are 7,500 public fire hydrants in the city of Spokane. But as residents of Hillyard learned last year, it only takes the misuse of one to contaminate an entire neighborhood’s water supply.

In response to an accident that shot green and fibrous hydroseeding materials into some Hillyard residents’ water last summer, the Spokane City Council adopted a new set of regulations for use of fire hydrants on Monday.

The updated rules will require that a backflow prevention and metering device be connected to every hydrant a permit holder uses. The business or individual must receive permission from the water department every time it hooks up to a city hydrant.

The company determined to have caused the backup, Spokane-based Clearwater Summit Group, has since paid the city $100,000 for the cost of cleanup. Ty Ullman, president and owner of the landscaping company, said it’s still not certain why the incident occurred, but acknowledged evidence that indicates Clearwater’s truck as the source.

Although the payment was hard to stomach, Ullman said he ultimately decided that “if this was us, we can’t leave this hanging out there.”

“There is nothing that actually proves that we committed it. What we’re saying is obviously there’s too many things that point to us. We’re not sure how it happened, and we sure didn’t want the taxpayers to pay for it,” Ullman said. “I’m not sure how it could not be us.”

Members of the City Council, which unanimously passed the new permitting system on Monday, said it was about protecting public health.

“There will not be a huge cost to the contractors on this,” said Councilwoman Lori Kinnear. “Ultimately, we have to make sure that our water supply is safe.”

The final version of the bill is less burdensome on businesses than an earlier draft, which was tweaked after permit holders aired grievances to council members in recent weeks.

The city will now provide permit holders with a device to prevent backflow into the water system. Its use is mandatory. Had such a device been in place last summer, it would have vented the tainted water straight into the ground, not back into the city’s water supply, according to Dan Kegley, director of the municipal water system.

“I think we’ve landed in a really good spot with this hydrant program,” Kegley told the Public Infrastructure and Environmental Sustainability Committee on Monday.

An added benefit of the updated regulations is that they will allow the city to track – and charge the wholesale rate for – water usage. The water that flows through hydrants is currently chalked up to a loss in the system, and the cost is effectively passed on to other ratepayers.

“The way it has been done, it shows up as just water loss to our system, like pipes are leaking. Now we know how much water we’re pumping,” said City Council President Breean Beggs.

Under the new law, permit holders will have to inform the water department before they hook up to a hydrant and document its location. That will allow the city to better track their use, according to Beggs.

Though the initial version of the proposal would have required a permit holder provide the city with 24 hours notice before hooking up to a hydrant, businesses successfully lobbied to have that removed from the final bill. Instead, a permit holder can call the department’s radio operator, a position that is staffed around the clock.

“It really wasn’t going to work, and it was great to hear from companies that put a red flag out there and we were able to go back and amend it and get it to where both parties were somewhat happy,” Councilwoman Kate Burke said of the final legislation.

About 1.5 billion gallons of water flow through the city’s fire hydrants every year, not including use by the fire department, from the 175 businesses or individuals who obtain hydrant permits. Permits are granted by the water department.

The cost of an annual permit has increased from $450 to $500, and the city will also now require a $1,500 deposit on the device.

Some companies obtain as many as 10 permits in a year and voiced concern that their annual deposit would amount to some $15,000. In response, the city adjusted the proposal to allow permit holders to instead include the city on its liability insurance policy rather than submit the deposit.

In Hillyard, the company improperly connected its equipment to a hydrant, causing a backflow that sent contaminants into the public water supply, according to the city.

City records indicate that about half of permit holders use hydrants for dust control, but a small number link to the system for hydroseeding, a process in which water is mixed with paper mulch and seed.

The contamination last July forced the city to issue a stop-drinking order to between 100 and 120 homes in the area bordered by Wellesley and Rowan avenues and Freya and Havana streets for five days.

Testing conducted following the incident showed three positive results for the presence of E. coli. Most strains of the bacteria are harmless to humans, but one can cause symptoms such as nausea and vomiting.

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