By Michael Roknick
Herald Business Editor
SHENANGO VALLEY —
If you liked the excavation of Shenango Valley streets this past summer to replace aging water lines then you’re going to love what’s in store next.
Aqua Pennsylvania Inc. has an extensive pipe replacement plan on the drawing boards that’s going to see more roads get chewed up to replace aging lines. The best guess by the utility is, over the next five years, six to seven miles of pipe will be replaced.
Construction work last summer for the project left drivers fuming and filled social network sites with barbed comments.
The single biggest complaint among motorists wasn’t of construction on any particular road. Rather, it was that construction work was ongoing simultaneously at multiple streets and intersections that serve as major traveling arteries for the Shenango Valley.
Among the vital roads that got dug up were East State Street in Hermitage between Boyd Drive and Route 18, and in Sharon on Sharpsville Avenue between Clark and East State Street and Buhl Boulevard from East State Street to Highland Road.
Sharon officials and residents have been the most outspoken in public meetings on the construction in terms of number of sites and duration. But since Sharon was the site of the original water company it has among the oldest pipes and with the highest percentage in poor condition, said Ray Byrom, senior engineer for Aqua of Pennsylvania.
Also, the city prefers construction be worked on between April and November, which requires more jobs be taken on simultaneously than if the utility had a full calendar year, said Donna Alston, an Aqua spokeswoman.
Nobody is questioning the need for replacing the pipes.
Since starting the pipe replacement project in 2000 it has cost the utility $55.3 million through 2012 to replace 92.8 miles of its 500-mile system. In all, Aqua serves 26,000 customers in its Shenango Valley division, which is around 75,000 people.
The utility inherited a water pipeline system that’s now creaking and literally breaking with age as some of the pipes go back a century. The original operation, Buhl Water Co., can trace its roots to the 19th century.
Over the decades old Aqua pipes have become clogged with gunk that has built up over the years – a process the water industry calls tuberculation. This corrosion buildup causes no ill health effects but if not dealt with can cause water to turn a yucky-looking rusty color.
Even worse, the majority of those pipes are cast iron, which are renowned for their brittleness and therefore can easily break.
“We’re replacing the cast iron with ductile iron which is a better product,’’ Byrom said. “It’s still iron, but it’s more durable and nowhere near as brittle.’’
Aqua also inherited other hand-me-downs.
Fuzzy, and in some cases nonexistent, record-keeping from the very early days has created adventures for the utility in trying to locate pipes.
“We try to do the best we can to find the pipes,’’ Byrom said. “Much of the acquisition mapping is very sparse because the previous owner didn’t bother to keep those kinds of records.’’
Also, Aqua found a huge swath of the pipe system was filled in with slag. A by-product of steelmaking, the Shenango Valley produced enormous amounts of slag in the early- and mid-20th century that steel producers were looking to get rid of any way they could.
Engineers and contractors of that era found slag in cheap and plentiful supplies and used the material as fill for a variety of projects – including laying water pipes.
“Slag tends to help corrode the exterior of the pipe, especially the cast iron, which leads to premature deterioration,’’ Byrom said.
As a result, when the company encountered slag. it had the material hauled away. Further, stringent water testing and standards set by the state Department of Environmental Protection must be met.
These dilemmas didn’t generate much sympathy from Scott Andrejchak. The Sharon city manager found himself facing a barrage of complaints from seething motorists and residents on the project.
“We’ve had some issues with Aqua this year to say the least,’’ Andrejchak said.
Andrejchak readily acknowledges there’s just no way around the fact that to replace the pipes streets must be dug up and any project involving a road is going to be an inconvenience. But in Aqua’s case he said the utility bit off far more than it could handle in a single construction year.
“I don’t think they would disagree that they got behind in some projects that needed to be wrapped up earlier than they are,’’ he said. “I told their construction manager we’re not happy about some of the situations that we’ve seen and I think they need to do the right thing and do what they can to make it up to the city.’’
This wasn’t only a situation of too many roads being dug up at the same time, but the duration of many of the projects, Andrejchak said. One at the top of the list is the greater Smith Street area, which includes where Pine Hollow branches off the Shenango Valley Freeway. Construction in the area has been ongoing for several months, to the irritation of residents.
But that area presented a couple unique issues, Alston said, as a design change was needed to deal with a culvert in the construction path. That project required the utility to get another construction permit from the city as well as from the Conservation District. She said final paving was finished there Monday but on Tuesday morning paving operations were observed by several Herald employees.
Not all had a bad experience this past summer.
“I thought all in all they did a pretty good job at keeping the traffic moving and protecting the work site,’’ said Gary Hinkson, Hermitage city manager. “There were a couple of issues with some of the equipment stored after-hours and maybe some site cleanup a couple different times, but those got resolved. We found them to be pretty cooperative in getting back and following up for us.’’
As for Sharon, though, Andrejchak promised a scrupulous overview of city ordinances to prevent this from happening again. In his crosshairs is how many linear feet of road can be dug up at a single time and the total amount over the course of a single year.
A particular concern to him is a map given to him by Aqua showing pipe replacement work planned in 2015. Based on the proposal the work planned for that year would exceed this past year, Andrejchak noted.
Among the sites penciled in for 2015 are almost all of Oakland Avenue, a good chunk of Silver Street, and Baldwin and Cedar avenues.
“I have some doubt they’ll be able to do all of these jobs in 2015 – there must be 20 different jobs in 2015,’’ he said.
The map given to the city was only an outlined proposal and the utility will be holding talks with officials to smooth things out, Alston said.
In those talks Andrejckak said he wants to work with the utility on an arrangement of streets needing repaved and also set for excavation for new pipes. The idea is to get as much of the street repaved after the construction work is completed.
In the end, Andrejchak says all he’s asking for is some semblance of normalcy.
“I just want them to complete their job and get the heck out of here,’’ he said.