Katherine Culliton-González didn’t inquire about the repair work until her house started shaking.
WSSC Water was doing an emergency repair to the water that feeds the North Woodside Standpipe at 1945 Seminary Place in Silver Spring. Culliton-González is among the residents living close by — on Kermit Road, Riley Place, and the surrounding area.
The utility initially planned a quiet repair in early November that would be finished by Christmas. But after workers discovered a large concrete block obstructing the valve, work was extended to mid-January and became far more disruptive.
The team had to use jackhammers to break up the block, and large trucks to haul it away.
But WSSC Water did not alert neighbors to the repair work. Nearby residents reported close-to-deafening noise levels and tremors in their homes, and made multiple requests for ear plugs and updates on the work. Since then, WSSC Water has been more responsive, they said.
“We should have proactively reached out to the neighbors to let them know of this work, especially after we ran into this unforeseen massive block of concrete underground on top of the old valve,” WSSC Water Communications and Community Relations Director Charles Brown said in an interview. “We certainly apologize to the residents for the inconvenience [and] disruptions. We should have alerted them at the beginning of this.”
WSSC Water is shoring up its old infrastructure. The valve at the site is about 40 years old and doesn’t shut securely, Brown said.
The valve is crucial to the flow between the North Woodside Standpipe and the largest water main in WSSC Water’s distribution system, the Bi-County Water Tunnel, Brown said. It delivers water to residents throughout Montgomery County, around the Beltway, and to Prince George’s County.
“It’s one small asset, but it’s an important piece of infrastructure for our distribution system,” Brown said.
It was supposed to be an easy fix, he explained, so the company didn’t tell nearby residents about the job. But workers discovered a slab of concrete on top of the valve. Removing this block caused the loud and disruptive work, Brown said. That part of the project is finished now. He doesn’t expect that any of the other work will be as loud.
The work started on Nov. 10. Repair work began each weekday at 7 a.m. and lasted until 3:30 p.m. The team also worked on Saturday, Dec. 12. That was when Culliton-González and her neighbor, Mandy Natter, went to the site to ask for information about the project.
That was the first day Culliton-González noticed that her house was shaking from the machines used in the repair work. The vibrations woke her up with a migraine headache at 7 a.m. The noise was so loud that she could not hold a conversation inside the house, she said.
The noise had been disruptive for a few weeks before. Her two sons are taking college classes remotely, and couldn’t hear their last week of classes — even with headphones on — or focus on their final exams.
Her 11-year-old son also struggled to hear his remote classes. He would wait to start his work once the repairs stopped in the evening.
She had to do the same, working through the night, as she could not focus during the day.
“Taking your college finals and possibly having your grades impacted from not being able to concentrate from the noise seems really unfair,” Culliton-González said.
Natter feared the noise levels were too high to be safe. Using an app on her phone, she measured the sound levels of the work and found it was 80 decibels. Listening to sounds at 85 decibels of higher for more than 8 hours can damage hearing, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association website.
Most of the nearby residents had not heard anything from WSSC Water before Dec. 12.
One, Sarah Dash, contacted Montgomery County Council Member Tom Hucker’s office to find out details about the repair work. On Dec. 10, a representative from WSSC Water brought her ear plugs and told her there would be particularly loud repairs over the coming days.
No one else in the neighborhood was notified.
After Culliton-González and Natter went to the work site, they spoke with members of a crew from Orbit Construction, which WSSC Water retained to handle the repair work. The crew connected them to WSSC Water Customer Advocate Brandon Stewart.
That day, they held a meeting that nine other families in the neighborhood attended. The residents’ chief concerns were whether the vibrations would damage their homes and whether the loud noises would harm their health.
Natter hired a structural engineer to assess her house out of concern the vibrations would damage the structural integrity. Additionally, she noticed flooding in her backyard.
Dash didn’t notice the vibrations, but was concerned about the noise. She acknowledged that some loud work is inevitable, but said she hopes the utility will implement a protocol to alert residents to all repairs, even emergency ones.
“I think that if my neighbors hadn’t literally gone over there and sort of demanded more responsiveness, I still don’t think we would even know what was going on, to be honest,” Dash said.
Since the meeting, WSSC Water modified the work hours to 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays. Additionally, the company gave ear plugs to all nearby residents and now provides daily updates on the work.
On Dec. 21, WSSC Water installed seismic monitors underground to keep tabs on the vibration.
Culliton-González said she was satisfied with WSSC Water’s response, but disappointed that it took repeated requests from residents to get more information.
Staff writer Dan Schere contributed to this story.