By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
It’s early on in the process, but the general manager of Chatham Kent’s Public Utilities Commission said the Wheatley Water Treatment Plant will be down for at least a year.
As of press time, it also meant extending Chatham-Kent Public Health’s current boil water advisory for affected residents for the time being.
At the regular PUC meeting Sept. 20, Tim Sunderland asked for the public’s patience as the commission deals with the aftermath of a serious fire at the facility Sept 13.
Sunderland said there are many “mechanical pieces” that have to come together before the damage can be repaired, including ordering a new desk-sized pump, which could take anywhere from 12 to 18 months to arrive.
“The heat and smoke damage is extensive,” Sunderland told the commission, adding that while the fire was contained to the generator room, the impact is significant, and every plastic or epoxy part must be examined.
Plus, Sunderland said, the plant’s entire electrical system will need to be pulled, tested and reinstalled.
Due to safety concerns, workers have been unable to get inside the building to even begin to assess the damage, as it hasn’t yet been deemed safe to enter.
According to Sunderland, the boil water advisory comes as the result of low pressure created when the plant went down.
But thanks to a collaboration with the municipalities of Leamington and Lakeshore, water continues to flow into the Chatham-Kent, keeping up the supply.
“The systems are built to interconnect,” Sunderland explained, noting water from the other plants helps pressurize the system.
Concerns about the long wait to fix the problem were also raised at the meeting.
West Kent Coun. Lauren Anderson, a Wheatley resident, said she understood the lengthy wait, but wants to make sure residents are kept up-to-date on the situation as it unfolds.
That concern led Anderson to bring forward a motion to council earlier in the week that would see the municipality create an improved public information plan and possibly a comprehensive media information campaign.
Sunderland said the PUC is looking at different ways to address the problem and bulk water haulers have been provided for residents in Tilbury and Wheatley. Flats of bottled water may also be available.
A mobile water treatment facility to temporarily replace Wheatley’s plant may also be part of the solution, Sunderland told the meeting.
As for keeping the boil water advisory in place, Sunderland said the PUC and public health want to be absolutely certain the system is safe before removing it.
“We want to be confident when we lift it,” he added. “We don’t want to be going back and forth. Once we stabilize the water supply, which we are working to do now, we will be able to test the water with accurate and repeatable results.”
The current boil water advisory asks affected residents to bring water to a rolling boil for at least one minute to ensure it is safe.
The PUC is also asking residents of Wheatley and Tilbury and other customers served by the south water treatment plant; including Blenheim, Merlin, Coatsworth, Shrewsbury, Rondeau and Erieau; to conserve water until further notice.