Pa. residents concerned over hydrant maintenance

Several were listed as leaking, while others were said to have frozen caps or lack shutoff valves

By Craig K. Paskoski
The Evening Sun

EAST BERLIN, Pa. — A handful of East Berlin residents expressed concern for the safety of their homes, possible insurance-rate increases, and petty borough politics during a public meeting on the condition of fire hydrants in the borough Monday night.

More than 30 East Berlin residents listened to a hydrant-by-hydrant analysis presented by John Schlaline, head of the citizens group Our Town East Berlin, which organized the meeting at the Liberty Fire Co. fire hall. According to Schlaline, numerous hydrants in the borough are in disrepair because they have not been flushed or received regular preventive maintenance. Several were listed as leaking, while others were said to have frozen caps or lack shutoff valves. Schlaline told the audience that his hydrant report was compiled during a December inspection of the 71 units in the borough and from information provided by a former authority employee and other borough officials.

During a sometimes-heated exchange, some residents questioned what the East Berlin Area Joint Authority is doing to maintain the hydrants and why fire company officials aren't more concerned.

"Living in a multi-unit, you have to worry about (fire)," said Darryl Petosky, who lives on King Street.

"They (the fire company) should be concerned about how they're going to fight a fire," Petosky said. "I think they should be the No. 1 people to complain about this."

But Greg Morehead, a member of Liberty Fire Co.'s board of directors, told the audience the department is aware of problems with certain hydrants and has procedures in place to work around any problems.

"We have more than enough water to fight a fire," said Morehead, who noted that other companies provide additional tanker support to the borough. "We have a plan to back that up. We're not putting the residents in danger. We do what we have to do to get the job done."

Dr. Michael A. Zittle said he has heard concerns about the hydrants from patients over the years and was interested in the condition of the unit in front of his practice at 312 Harrisburg St.

"I've been there 30-some years and I've never seen anything done to it," he said. "I'm kind of glad it's coming to the surface."

Schlaline, who is also head of the borough's planning commission, said he had invited members of the joint authority, which is responsible for most of the hydrants in the borough, the Borough Council and leaders of Liberty Fire Company to participate at the meeting.

Gerald Mummert, head of the joint authority, said earlier Monday that he would not be able to make the meeting. Previously, he said the authority is addressing the aging hydrants and water lines through the systematic replacement of sections according to the authority's 10-year plan. Much of the borough's drinking-water system is more than 100 years old.

Several people complained about what they called petty politics in the borough that has kept the hydrants from being fixed.

Morehead said the fire company is reluctant to take on maintenance of the hydrants because of the politics.

"We as a fire department don't want to be put in the middle of the turf war between the council and the authority," he said.

David Richards, president of the Borough Council and member of the authority, warned that residents would face significant fee increases in order to pay for improvements to the hydrants and water system.

"You're getting the result of a long period of no maintenance," he said. "You're going to face more costs and there is no way around it."

According to Schlaline, questions concerning the hydrants were brought to the attention of the borough planning commission in September, at which time the commission went to the council and requested information from the authority.

"We got what I consider an incomplete response," Schlaline said. Since that time, Schlaline and the planning commission have been pushing for answers and trying to draw attention to the hydrants.

Schlaline said a fire in November which caused extensive damage to a house on East King Street also raised concerns among citizens.

"People asked why the fire hydrants weren't being used to fight the fire," Schlaline said.

Schlaline and other members of the audience said the inoperable hydrants could affect residents' home insurance rates and pose a liability to the authority.

"The potential for liability is great," he said.

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