Tuesday, December 20, 2016

My experiences while serving as an At-Large member of the Gloucester County, Virginia Public Utilities Advisory Committee (The 2nd in a series of articles about my experiences and findings)



Utilities' Equipment Storage Yard

As I previously shared; I visited Utilities’ office, equipment storage yard and water treatment plants after being appointed to the PUAC. I began by visiting the equipment yard first and was astounded at its’ dilapidated and unorganized condition. Being retired from the military and from the dirt work side of the construction industry, I am well aware of what an equipment and vehicle storage yard should be like and why. Utilities’ equipment yard is located in the courthouse area, behind Southern States and behind Main Street Center. Access to the yard is limited as it is gained through the Southern States shopping center parking lot and along narrow roads behind the shopping centers. The floor of the yard is made up of various slopes covered in dirt, gravel and grass/weeds. One of Utilities’ heaviest used and oldest sewer pumping stations is located in the rear of the yard. Beyond the pumping station are wetlands with a stream that flows to the Ware River

Inside the yard I observed several portable emergency pump units stored under a pole shed with various usable and unusable pipeline fittings and other items and debris. These pumps are necessary when one or more of the sewer pump stations become inoperable and they vary in price from $35,000 to $50,000 or more. Many of the hoses and fittings to the pumps, which are not cheap either, were lying on the ground in the dirt. Several of the pumps had flat tires and were missing various components. The batteries, like the rest of the pump units, looked like they had not been maintained for a very long time. When I asked Utilities’ employees how many of the pumps actually worked; they said probably none. They said all of the pumps’ batteries were likely dead because they had no way of plugging in chargers to keep them charged. They said when a pump is needed they take what is needed from the other pumps to get one running. I did not find this hard to believe due to the un-maintained appearance of the pumps and other items stored in the yard.

I was shown what was called “Utilities’ repair shop”. This “shop” consisted of what appeared to be an old portable wooden storage building with a ramp at the entrance. There was a riding lawnmower sitting in the middle of the floor with hardly enough room to walk past it on any side because of everything else being stored in the building. I was also shown a small recently built storage building where the employees said mostly copper and brass fittings were stored. I guess the intent was to better secure items that tend to walk away on their own or deteriorate rapidly when left outside on the ground. This building was the best looking and most organized area in the yard.

Utilities has a vactor truck which is essentially a huge shop vac on a truck. The truck is used primarily to vacuum up sewer water and debris and to flush out sewer pipelines. Vactor trucks are necessary pieces of equipment in utility departments like Gloucester’s. Utilities’ vactor truck, which likely cost $150,000 or more when new, was parked under another pole shed type structure. Like the other pole shed in the yard, there is no electricity. This would not be a problem for most any other truck type piece of equipment, but because vactor trucks have water tanks along with numerous fittings and lines that contain water; storing in such conditions during periods of freezing weather will cause many of the water containing components to freeze and burst. Utilities does a pretty good job of minimizing damage due to freezing; but don’t you think there should have been a heated facility for the truck to call home, before it was purchased?

There was no restroom facility or drinkable water located at Utilities’ equipment yard. When I first visited, there was a single user cinderblock outhouse facility inside the chain link fencing and to the right when you first enter the gates. The outhouse no longer had a door or place to sit; in other words it was unusable and appeared to have been like that for a long time. The outhouse has since been torn down and removed. I first thought there may be restrooms in the small cinderblock building that is to the left as you enter the gates. That was not the case, as there were no restrooms or drinkable water anywhere in the yard. An employee said they would typically urinate somewhere out of sight or go to the main office or somewhere else to relieve themselves.

There was a dump truck, backhoe, water trailers and others types of utility related equipment parked in Utilities’ yard. Even though all of the department’s equipment was not present, the yard appeared too small and uneven to safely move and store such equipment. There is also a lack of space to store pipe, fittings and other supplies necessary to repair and maintain our public water and sewer systems. The small amount of storage space within the yard is inadequate and does little to protect supplies from the weather.

Utilities has been in need of a new storage yard and office for a long time. (More about the office later in the series) Several years ago several million dollars were borrowed to, in part, design and construct a new yard. Tens of thousands of dollars was spent to have the design work done and drawings created. Unfortunately instead of making adjustments to the plans and continuing forward, the whole idea was pretty much scrapped by the current Board of Supervisors in 2013. The director of Utilities at that time wanted to buy land for the new yard, but the BOS did not agree and directed Utilities to search properties already owned by the County, to see if there was a parcel suitable for their needs. There was not much of a selection and the only suitable parcels are owned by our school system, so everything pretty much came to a halt. From that point forward I continually suggested constructing a new utility yard and office on the old Page Middle School property as the first step in consolidating certain County and school system functions. (More about the utilization of the old Page property will come later in the series)

The last I heard about Utilities’ yard from one of our Supervisors is they were thinking about building a temporary yard close to the school bus garage to establish a presence on the property; in hopes that someone will want to develop the property and, be willing to pay to relocate Utilities and the school bus garage to another property they hope the developer will purchase; all in exchange for the bus garage property and old Page property. I told the Supervisor nothing should be done if taxpayer money was going to be wasted on such speculative nonsense. Now the BOS and the school board have consented to spending tens of thousands of dollars on a study to determine the best place for the school bus garage facility and Utilities’ facilities to be located. Study after study, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy “so called” expert opinions. What a waste of tax dollars.

After visiting Utilities’ yard I notified appropriate County staff and the BOS of the following safety concerns:

-No restroom facilities at the yard
-No potable water at the yard
-Unsafe equipment maintenance area at the yard
-No eyewash apparatus at the yard
-No readily accessible fire extinguishers at the yard

I did not perform an in-depth safety inspection by any measure. The concerns I noted were nothing more than first glance observations.

In my next article I will describe my visit to Utilities’ water treatment facilities. In upcoming articles I will also share some of my concerns about safety, accountability, water and sewer rates and a few other topics. If you pay taxes or pay for water or sewer in Gloucester County; you should not miss any of the articles in this series.

The third article in this series will be published after the new year begins. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours!!

Kenneth E. Hogge, Sr.
Gloucester Point, Virginia

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