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Water line mystery solved in Jal

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JAL — There’s water and there’s water. And not all drops are fit to drink.

When a street repair contractor accidentally broke a line with his backhoe on East Merriman Avenue in Jal late Monday afternoon, the odor coming from the black-tinted water under pressure briefly alarmed everybody in the area.

“It was nasty,” Mayor Stephen Aldridge said.

Fortunately, a midstream company expert in the area had his testing equipment with him.

“Energy Transfer had a gentleman down here,” Aldridge said. “He put his sniffer to it and found no gas or H2S in it, so we knew those two elements weren’t in it.”

Certain concentrations of methane gas are flammable and hydrogen sulfide is lethal.

No fresh waterline or wastewater line appeared on immediately available city charts, so City Manger Matt White said they contacted the Oil Conservation District, which maintains appropriate records, to determine whether the state could identify from where a spout of the initially black liquid was coming.

The mystery continued into a time initially scheduled for Holtec International representatives to meet with the city council and local residents to discuss Holtec’s plan to construct and operate a consolidated interim storage facility for spent nuclear fuel west of Hobbs.

As the mayor apologized to the Holtec representatives while requesting to reschedule the meeting due to the emergency, Public Works Director Van Myrick paced the Merriman Avenue scene, gathering as much information as he could and providing direction to workers attempting to identify the source of the water.

Asked for an estimate, Myrick guessed the plume of water bubbled up onto the street at a rate of about 200-250 gallons per minute. By then, the blackish tint had dissipated and the water looked more like water.

“One of the contractors hit (the waterline),” Aldridge explained. “They were doing some street work and they clipped the line. They had no idea it was there. It was pretty shallow. We had no idea it was there.”

Discussing the immediate alarm the city officials felt, the mayor explained, “All indicators we had early on — the smell and appearance — we just wanted to make sure that we knew what it was.”

Eventually, somebody found old records.

“It was an old water line for the City of Jal. Nasty water in it,” Aldridge later told the News-Sun. “It was one of those lines that didn’t get replaced and we didn’t know was still alive. We don’t know where it is connected, but we were able to stop the flow by operating valves.”

The city had spent millions of dollars and months of labor replacing municipal water lines in recent years.

“We’ll sit down and figure it out. We’ll go through our regular routine,” Aldridge said. “This is not our first rodeo trying to figure out what lines weren’t replaced, figure if they’re still in service and see if they’re still pressured up. We’ve found others that were under pressure. When we find them, we isolate them.”

White explained the condition of the water — odor and appearance — as it initially spouted from the 20-year-old broken line was due to it being stagnant. Apparently, the line served no homes or businesses, but was still connected to the city’s water system, causing it to be under pressure.

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