Union utility workers spend hours in the cold fixing broken water mains

SUB-FREEZING TEMPERATURES that recently blanketed the area forced union utility workers for Missouri American Water Co. and Illinois American Water Co. out into the cold in an ongoing battle to repair frozen and burst water mains. – Fox 2 News screencap



Utility Workers Local 335 members have been spending hours in sub-freezing temperatures repairing water mains that burst under the pressure of the recent prolonged cold snap.

“They’re fixing 60, 70, 80 breaks a day around the clock,” said Local 335 President Allan Bathon. “Some of these guys are working 12-16 hours straight.”

The extreme cold descended on the area just after Christmas, with temperatures plunging from the teens to single digits.


Bathon said the combination of cold water in the pipes, and soil constriction caused by the cold was putting pressure on aging lines maintained by union workers for Missouri American Water Company.

“You put that really cold water into the pipes and the ground is dry and freezing, it shrinks up. That gives the pipes some room to move in there,” Bathon said. “It’s just a combination of really cold weather, cold water and old systems.”

Bathon said Missouri American declared an emergency, in accordance with the union contract to get as many workers as possible on the street to deal with the main breaks.

As temperatures warm, Bathon said, crews will face a new problem as the ground warms and previously constricted soil settles back into place, putting new pressure on the lines.


Bathon said workers in the water treatment plants are pulling a heavy load as well, trying to keep enough pressure in the lines to avoid the sort of drop that would result in a boil order.

“We’re out at the plants trying to keep things open because with all the breaks you lose the pressure,” he said. “When you lose too much pressure, you have to have a boil order.”

Bathon said he had 100 to 150 members on the street and another 60 to 70 at the water plants working around the clock to keep the water flowing.

“Most people don’t think about it,” he said. “They just turn on the tap and water comes out.

“We’ve got people out there closing down valves, opening valves and fixing leaks here, there and everywhere.”


If you see crews working on the water lines, Bathon said, it might be nice to offer them something warm to eat or drink.

“Make sure they’re not frozen,” he said. Otherwise, stay out of their way so they can get their work done as quickly as possible.


“We have an aging infrastructure,” Brian Russell, a spokesman for Missouri American Water Company told the news media. “The cold water flowing through the old steel pipes just causes them to fracture. We’ve been going out and getting them fixed as fast as we can but for each one we fix, it seems like two or three more break.

Missouri American Water serves roughly 450,000 customers statewide and services about 4,200 miles of water main in St. Louis County alone.

Karen Cooper, senior manager of field operations and production, said Illinois American was requesting all customers conserve water while crews continued to battle frigid temperatures’ impact on the water mains to ensure service for homes, businesses and fire protection.


To report a water main break in Missouri, call 1-866-430-0820.

To report a problem in Illinois, call 1-800-422-2782.

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