AVIS - Though state officials say the public drinking water serving residents in Avis Borough and parts of Pine Creek Township is safe, local officials say they are concerned about little pieces of black plastic that seem to be running through the lines connected to fire hydrants.
That black plastic, which is believed to be coming from a liner in the holding tank for Appalachian Utilities Inc., has caused the borough fire chief to bypass about two dozen hydrants for fear the material will stick in the hose lines and nozzles, possibly causing injuries to his volunteers and any mutual aid that may arrive to help fight fires.
Fire Chief Randy Kehoe said his company first noticed the problem in 2005, and has tried to work with borough officials and the water company to help get rid of the material from the lines.
The issue came to light when The Express received calls from area residents asking why the fire company did not use fire hydrants when fighting a fire this past Monday at a home on West Central Avenue.
Water from tanks was used to quell the blaze at the rear of 24 W. Central Ave., which is only about a block from the station. The fire displaced seven people, including children.
When confronted with those complaints, Kehoe came to The Express and produced a large plastic bag.
"That's what comes out of the fire hydrants in the borough," he said, as he unveiled several pieces of what appears to be the plastic, presumably from a liner in Appalachian's water holding tank on a hill just north of Route 150, west of Avis.
"That's not the first time it has happened. I have several samples like that," he said.
"From what I understand, there was a liner in the tank across from the Minit Mart and either it ruptured or it wasn't taken out during installation and it deteriorated. This (the black plastic material) is throughout the entire water system," he said.
The problem affects about two dozen fire hydrants in Avis Borough and portions of Pine Creek Township, Kehoe said, as well as several residences, from Kreider Hollow to Susquehanna Trailways and then out to Wild Wings Development behind the Avis Elementary School.
Contacted about the situation on Thursday, Appalachian Utilities Inc. owner Frank Sergeant told The Express, "Those guys are lying to you. I'm not going to talk to you." He then abruptly hung up the phone.
However, Sergeant called back to say that the state Department of Environmental Protection is aware there was a problem, but his company has "flushed the system extensively. It is no longer a problem ... the problem is cleared up."
Sergeant then threatened a lawsuit if a story "hits the press." Appalachian Utilities is a privately owned water company based in Woolrich. The business website, www.manta.com, states Appalachian has an annual revenue of $1 million to $2.5 million and employs a staff of approximately five to nine people.
But Kehoe said there is a problem.
"At first, we were scared to hook up to (the hydrants) because that (material) going into nozzles and hose strings is actually dangerous to my firefighters," he said. "I have had two firefighters almost get hurt on one fire. And we had a second fire where the plastic got into the intake of the engine and almost completely shut off the water supply to that truck."
Kehoe said the two firefighters were knocked across a living room while fighting a blaze in a trailer due to the plastic material clogging the hose nozzle, building up pressure in the hose.
"It pushed them completely across the living room," he said. "If it wasn't for a lounge chair or a couch that they fell back into, they could have been hurt."
The fire company has since developed a "secondary response" to draw water from the hydrants, though that method does take somewhat longer to install.
Borough and Pine Creek Township officials have been made aware of the problem.
"I took it to Borough Council and council members contacted all the authorities they could think of. As long as it's safe to drink, nobody seems to be worried about it," Kehoe said.
The hydrant problem, however, was not a factor in the dousing of the most recent blaze in the borough, Kehoe said.
The fire company's two tankers have a capacity of 3,000 gallons of water, and Monday's blaze consumed less than 1,000 gallons, he said. Additional tankers from Woolrich, McEhattan and Dunnstown were called to that fire and major fires in areas primarily served by the Avis Fire Co.
However, Kehoe said the hydrant problem did affect the response to a large fire at Avis Building Supply last February, before the new method of drawing water out was developed.
"It's not just my firefighters and my equipment. I've got mutual aid coming in and I don't want to damage their equipment or put their people at risk," he said.
Avis Borough Council President Scott Stover said the borough has also been aware of the problem since about 2005, but has exhausted all avenues to rectify the situation, saying the state only seems to be concerned about whether water is safe to drink.
"A couple of years ago, we went through the Public Utility Commission with state Sen. John Wozniak's office," Stover explained. "The outcome was that they had to flush the lines frequently and document it. There's nothing we can do. We didn't pursue it any further than that. I'm not sure how much plastic is going through the lines. What they tell me is they had a plastic liner film that protected the liner for installation. They didn't take the film out."
Stover, also a volunteer with the fire company and an EMS captain, said he's also aware the plastic is hampering emergency responses.
"(The plastic) gets into the water lines and plugs up the intake on the (fire) engines," he said. "We know there"s a problem. The intake gets blocked up. We"re not sure if we're getting water or not getting water" when hooking up to a hydrant.
That, he said, puts firefighters manning hoses connected to hydrants at risk.
"That's why we went to the PUC through Wozniak's office. But they didn't give us any recourse. Our attorney was involved and all they said was, as long as they flush the lines out, it's suitable to them. It's a sore subject. I'm a little upset with anybody involved with it. There's nothing we can do."
Stover said he certainly understand's Kehoe's concerns. He said Appalachian has flushed the lines, but said that "on several sites where we draw water from the hydrants for practice sessions, we're still getting plastic in the lines. That's the reason they don't want to use the hydrants."
He added, "I don't blame (firefighters). You never know what's going to happen. I wouldn't want to be the person on the end."
Pine Creek Township Supervisor Dennis Greenaway said he hasn't seen any plastic in the water lines, but noted the fire company did bring the issue to the township a few months ago.
"No (residents) have come to the township. Nobody has handed anything to me and said, 'This was a piece of plastic from wherever,' " he said.
"I don't have an easy answer," Greenaway continued. "Flush the water out and go to where that bladder is and get that cleaned out completely. That would be a very Herculean task."
Dan Spadoni, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection's regional office in Williamsport, said his agency has received no complaints over the past two years regarding the Appalachian water.
"They are in compliance with the Pennsylvania Safe Drinking Water Act," he said. "We have not been made aware of those concerns with loose pieces. If anybody has those concerns, they can contact us and we'd be happy to discuss this with them."
He said those with complaints can call DEP at 570-327-3636 and ask for a service representative.
Armed with the company's denial and DEP's response, Kehoe and former Avis Fire Chief Gary Bowers took two members of The Express staff on Thursday to tap into two fire hydrants: One at the Avis Elementary School and one at the corner of Brady and Park streets, just a block from the fire company.
After tapping the line for two or three minutes, several pieces of what appeared to be black plastic were gathered at a filter at the end of the hose. Some were as big as a quarter.
"Just imagine running that for an hour and how much material you will get," Kehoe said. "That's what our concern is."
"We just don't want have any of our firefighters get hurt," Bowers added.
The volunteers also showed The Express packets containing the plastic substance, dated from fires in April and June of 2006, February of 2008 and two instances in October of 2010.
Kehoe said he's not sure who's responsible for the hydrants, noting the water company owns them and he believes the borough rents them for usage.