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Cause of downtown water main break still unknown

James David Dickson
The Detroit News
Drinking fountains at Cobo blocked off Monday morning.

Detroit — Crews are still working to repair the water main break that triggered a boil water advisory for a large portion of downtown Detroit, and still believe that the advisory could be lifted late Wednesday or sometime Thursday.

Gary Brown, director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, said Sunday he hoped the broken, 42-inch water main would be repaired Sunday. Once fixed, the line would have to be flushed out with water and then disinfected with chlorine before testing could begin. 

As of late Monday morning, repairs were still ongoing. Bryan Peckinpaugh, a spokesman for the water department, said the hope is to finish repairs and start the testing process later Monday. If that happens, the advisory could be lifted Wednesday.

If testing is initiated Tuesday, that means the advisory couldn't be lifted until Thursday.

Kris Donaldson, a district director for Southeast Michigan for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, explained the tests must take place 24 hours apart "to ensure bacteria hasn't rebounded" between tests, which can happen.

"That’s an extra level of precaution to ensure that 'yep, this is definitely disinfected well-enough, and the bacteria hasn’t rebounded,'" Donaldson explained Monday. 

Water testing happens at least weekly in every Metro Detroit community, Donaldson said. That process is called Total Coliform Testing. Coliform, Donaldson said, is an "indicator organism" that, if present, points to the possibility other organisms are present. If the test is positive, the sample is sent off for additional testing to determine which organisms.

After two negative tests results, from samples collected 24 hours apart, the boil water advisory can be lifted. 

The cause of the break remains under investigation, Peckinpaugh said. At this point the department can't say whether age or other factors caused it.

The break took place in a parking lot on St. Maron Place, a one-block street that runs from East Lafayette to Larned.

The boil water advisory stretches from the John C. Lodge Service Drive on the west to Mt. Elliott on the east, from Interstate 75 to the north to the Detroit River to the south. This includes the Cobo Center, where some 4,500 credentialed journalists are covering the North American International Auto Show.

Brown said Sunday that he hoped to be able to narrow the area covered by the boil water advisory on Monday. But Peckinpaugh said Monday the geography hasn't changed.

Industry preview days at the auto show run from Wednesday to Thursday, and that event can attract some 35,000 visitors total, said Amanda Niswonger, a spokeswoman for the auto show.

Many thousands of bottles of water were brought in to Cobo, and are available for purchase, she said Sunday, adding that the ice being served was either made before the advisory or brought in from areas not covered by it. "There's no shortage of water," she said.