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EXCLUSIVE: Discolored Water in Halls Hill Tied to Virginia Hospital Center Construction

Arlington resident Amber Haynes says her family has been living without the certainty of clear water for the last year.

Every time they plan to do laundry, Haynes and her family run the water to clear out the murky sediment that builds up. The family uses bottled water for brushing their teeth and disconnected the ice machine. Even the dog drinks bottled water.

“Showering is disgusting, but it has to happen. The bottom of our shower is red,” she told ARLnow on Tuesday. “We have to be strategic about when we do things.”

The family lives near Virginia Hospital Center, which is in the midst of a large expansion project. Haynes is one of a handful of families in the area who have been dealing with discolored water, which residents attribute it to ongoing construction at VHC.

In 2018, the hospital narrowly received County Board approval for the expansion project, which includes a large parking garage and a seven-story outpatient pavilion.

Construction at Virginia Hospital Center in September (Staff Photo by Jay Westcott)

Community leaders say the response to the issue has been frustratingly slow.

“We really feel like we’re not being well represented,” said Wilma Jones, the president of the John M. Langston Citizens Association, which represents the historically Black neighborhood of Halls Hill. “The neighborhood has just had enough.”

Jones called the situation a “mini-Flint-like issue,” a reference to the Michigan city’s large-scale water crisis.

“We know that if this was occurring in neighborhoods like Country Club Hills, they would have resolved the issues a long time ago, rather than continuing to ask residents to be patient and deal with water they cannot drink or use to brush their teeth,” she said earlier last week. “Neither the county nor the hospital is providing drinking water for the impacted families.”

The residents say their complaints were not taken seriously until recently, when the water reached its murkiest point and two County Board members participated in a meeting between hospital administrators and neighbors.

“It’s a flurry of activity right at the end now that it’s gotten so bad and more people know about it,” Haynes said.

Arlington County and VHC both confirmed they are working to resolve the discoloration, which they attribute to the construction of a new water main that is almost ready to go online, according to county and hospital officials. The new main was made necessary due to the hospital expansion, we’re told.

Katie O’Brien, a spokeswoman from the Department of Environmental Services, said the county has been working on resolving the issue since staff first learned about the problem in mid-February. The department was not aware of complaints made before then, she said.

Hospital officials, meanwhile, say they are taking the problems seriously.

“We are aware of concerns expressed by a select number of households near the Hospital and have been working closely with our contractors and Arlington County to resolve the issue,” said Adrian Stanton, Vice President, Business Development & Community Relations. “VHC has been working diligently with our contractors to make sure the issue is resolved quickly, authorizing double crews to work through the holiday weekend to complete the work.”

Rust-colored water from the Haynes family home (Photo courtesy of the Haynes family)

The county believes the construction of the new water main may have caused abrupt changes in water flow and pressure, stirring up decades-old sediment and minerals within these pipes, O’Brien said. That activity can discolor the water and affect its taste but residual chlorine in the main “disinfects the water to ensure it is safe for use,” she said.

“We contracted with a plumbing firm to flush individual service lines and interior pipes and fixtures in affected homes,” O’Brien said. “At the end of March, we began to receive complaints again. Since then, we have committed to daily flushing of the old main, which helps to alleviate the issue until the new water main is in service.”

The new water main, which needed additional testing before it could be used, passed a bacteriological test on Monday, O’Brien said. Now the contractor is transferring service from the old main to the new one, which will serve homes on 19th Street N. from N. Edison Street to N. George Mason Drive.

“Residents in this area should be transferred to the new line this week, and we expect to resolve these concerns for our residents,” she said.

Jones said a liaison between the neighborhood and the hospital has talked about the problem since last June. Even if the county did not find out about the issue until February, she said, that should not excuse residents having to live under such conditions.

“The county claims they didn’t find out till February,” Jones said last Thursday. “Even if they found out in February, it’s almost June… These people have sheltered in place with funky water and [no one has] even bought them a bottle of water.”

On Friday, the community liaison, Jim O’Shea, said the contractor started passing out cases of bottled water. O’Brien confirmed that the county started working with the contractor last week to provide bottled water, which will continue until the issue is resolved.

The liaison echoed his neighbors’ sense of being brushed off.

“They weren’t taking it seriously until we took it to the [County] Board and showed pictures,” he said. “By this point, there’s definitely an impact on trust. We want more transparency. We want accountability.”

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