Customers of the Rock Springs Water Company do not receive adequate fire protection from fire hydrants in the Rock Springs service area, according to multiple documents and interviews with fire personnel.
Steven Bair, fire director/chief of department for the Centre Region Council of Governments, said the Alpha Fire Company operates as if the hydrants do not exist. He made the distinction that water will come out of the hydrants if they are opened, but the hydrants do not provide adequate fire protection.
“Hydrants in that system have flow, but they don’t have much pressure. They’ve been striving to improve the system, but they haven’t come far enough to change our protection,” Bair said.
Bonnie Jacobs, a shareholder of the company, said, “The hydrants are functional 99 percent of the time.”
The company, which has serviced Western Ferguson Township since 1947, is a privately owned company with 11 stockholders, who own 10 to 48 shares each. The total outstanding stock amounts to 199 shares, according to the company’s 2016 annual financial report.
Bair said it has been standard operating procedure for the fire company to ignore the hydrants since before his time with CRCOG, which has been 11 years. He said water is trucked in by the fire company in the event of a fire emergency.
Ferguson Township Manager David Pribulka expressed concerned for property owners in the Rock Springs service area.
“It’s concerning. I mean, you obviously want all of your residential neighborhoods in your municipality to have immediate access to a sufficient water supply to suppress any fire or emergencies that might occur out there,” Pribulka said. “I’m not overly worried that there is going to be a fire out there and there is not going to be enough water to put on that fire to douse it, but at the same time, you have hydrants out there and, of course, you’re going to prefer that they’re functional.
Pribulka also said the fire company is capable of responding and bringing their own resources, which helps alleviate some of his concerns.
A feasibility study regarding possible system acquisition of Rock Springs by the State College Borough Water Authority was conducted in 2008.
The study found that the Rock Springs pipeline material reportedly consists of PVC, asbestos cement and cast iron pipe. The age of the system was not known, but some portions were more than 60 years old at the time of the study. Fire hydrant flow rates were reportedly low, between 300-500 gallons per minute.
Bair said the desired minimum flow rate by the National Fire Protection Agency is 500 GPM. Anything lower than that means the hydrant is inadequate, he said.
“The distribution is of insufficient size to provide adequate fire protection,” the study said. “Water distribution is marginally sufficient for water supply purposes. The system does not provide adequate fire protection according to NFPA and ISO (International Organization for Standardization) standards. Large parts of the distribution system are reaching their useful life and will require replacement in the next 5-10 years.”
During a Ferguson Township Board of Supervisors meeting in 2013, former Ferguson Township manager Mark Kunkle suggested it would not be appropriate for the township to require property owners to pay for the maintenance of hydrants in the Rock Springs service area if they would not receive fire protection from them.
A fire hydrant exoneration list was approved by the board at the meeting and no assessment has been made of the Rock Springs Water Authority properties since 2014, according to the township’s 2017 operating budget.
Extensive leakage throughout the 18.1 mile system is another issue that has plagued Rock Springs. Water leakage was reportedly 70 percent, according to a memo from a 2014 customer meeting.
According to the 2016 financial audit, 63.7 percent of water was unaccounted for. Over the past year, average unaccounted-for water loss was been 51.43 percent, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection North-Central Regional Office.
“We’ve made major repairs to improve,” Jacobs said. “We’re trying to improve everyday.”
Rock Springs spent $20,916 on general system maintenance and repair, according to the 2016 financial audit.
The leakage is not a problem that is unique to Rock Springs, however, as the Centre Daily Times previously reported that about 50 percent of the water in the Mountaintop Regional Water Authority is unaccounted for or lost through leaks.
Pribulka said the extensive leakage and possibility of a catastrophic water failure is something that concerns him as a municipal manager.
“If you look at concerns that I have as a municipal manager, I think there is a possibility of catastrophic failure to the Rock Springs Water Company service area,” Pribulka said. “We do have an emergency water supply plan that is in place, but it is a temporary solution.”
The plan, Pribulka said, involves the deployment of water trucks to the area so that customers may have potable water. The plan does not address long-term viability or livestock needs.
“What are we going to do in order to respond to that? Because it’s not the case that somebody is going to swoop in overnight, replace the water system and it’ll be a minor inconvenience for some of the customers out in that area. It has the potential to be a very serious situation for the 400-500 connections out there.”
Megan Leathers, a Rock Springs customer since 2014, said her main concern is the lack of communication between the company and their customers, but she also shares some of Pribulka’s concerns.
“The only backup plan I know of is tanker trucks, sort of like disaster relief, which is not very encouraging. It’s a ticking time bomb about having clean, usable water in the future,” Leathers said. “Our main concern is the future of the company. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is aware of what is going on, but they don’t seem to have a plan. I’m worried it might worsen as the years go on if there is no future for the Rock Springs Water Company.”