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Middlebury neighborhoods remain under boil notice after fire hydrant failure

A red building that curves, with green trees out front, and U.S. and Vermont state flags.
Sophie Stephens
Vermont Public
Town of Middlebury offices on Main Street, with the state and U.S. flags flying out front. Bottled water is available at Middlebury’s police station as many neighborhoods remain under a boil water notice.

Several neighborhoods in Middlebury have been under boil water notices for weeks, and dealing with intermittent water outages, including businesses like Cabot Creamery and Aqua ViTea.

That’s after town officials believe someone tampered with a fire hydrant.

“There was evidence that somebody had opened the hydrant up and then put it back together wrong,” said Tom Hanley, Middlebury’s emergency management director, and recently retired police chief. He doesn’t know when this happened, who did it, or why.

But as the temperature dropped, ice got into the hydrant. When it thawed, water flowed at such a force that it blew apart. There’s security camera footage of this happening, Hanley said.

Once the hydrant blew up, it created a “pressure wave” that went through the town’s water system, including through 100-year-old iron pipes. Pipes broke, valves burst, and there were dozens of leaks in the town’s main water line.

“This has caused us to shut the water off in some areas of town where repairs can be made,” Hanley said. “Everybody else on this part of the system is under a boil water order because we don't know what kind of contaminants got into there.”

The town is also asking people to conserve water.

"We also lost a significant amount of water in our reservoir, which creates its own set of issues, especially if it comes to fighting a major fire or things like that," Hanley said.

He thinks the boil notice could lift as early as mid-week, once the state has adequately tested the water supply. But he anticipates issues with the water system to continue.

"This may be going on repetitively for the next three to six months until we fix everything and make sure everything's back in order.”
Tom Hanley, Middlebury

“It's gonna be like whack a mole – as we fix one, another one breaks,” he said. “This may be going on repetitively for the next three to six months until we fix everything and make sure everything's back in order.”

So far, the town has repaired over 20 breaks, as staff at the town’s small water department have worked late into the night. Now, they’re worried about running out of materials needed to make repairs.

“We don't have the equipment stockpile to deal with that many and we're getting low on resources,” Hanley said.

In a press release, the town of Middlebury said it’s seeking a local emergency declaration from the governor.

Five-gallon bottles of water are available at Middlebury’s police station for free, with more coming next week.

So far, repairs have cost close to $500,000 to date.

“This is not a cheapo,” Hanley said. “People need water, though. We don't have any choice. The system has to be fixed.”

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Lexi covers science and health stories for Vermont Public.
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