Section: News

Toil and trouble: Boil alert leaves Gambier residents thirsty

With last week’s boil alert, Kenyon College has now announced five boil alerts in the past year. Boil alerts are enacted when public water is or could possibly be contaminated.

Director of Facility Operations Steve Arnett largely  attributes these issues to random, unpredictable malfunctions with the Village of Gambier’s infrastructure.

“The boil alert last week was prompted by an eight-inch main water line beneath Brooklyn Street that just failed,” Arnett wrote in an email to the Collegian. “This isn’t really something that the Village can anticipate.”

Water line failures of this sort are called unexpected pipe failures, and Arnett called these the most common cause of Kenyon’s boil alerts. In the past, there have also been unexpected equipment failures, caused by a faulty pump, and unexpected pipe damage, which can occur when workers at construction sites inadvertently strike pipes.

No matter the cause, boil alerts come at a cost: AVI Resident Director Kim Novak estimated that boil alert preparation rings up at $800 worth of bottled water and $800 in paper plates and cups and plastic silverware. AVI provided bottled water in Peirce Hall to students during this boil alert and the previous alert; bottled water was also available in Gund Commons.

“I think it was inconvenient,” Keegan James ’19 said of the boil alert. “I was a little sad to see the amount of plastic bottles and paper products used.”

Novak shared students’ concerns for the environmental impact of switching to disposable water bottles and serving food on paper products during the alert. “It’s an increased cost to everyone when there’s a boil alert,” she said.

What pleased Novak most during this most recent crisis was the effectiveness of what she calls Kenyon’s “incident command system,” wherein a chain of command streamlines and eases communication by clearly detailing who reports to whom. “I know who’s supposed to tell me what’s going on and that makes me feel secure to my team,” she said. She emphasized the degree to which she feels the College has grown in its aptitude for addressing boil alerts on campus, which could demonstrate Kenyon’s ability to handle a bigger crisis.

“I think the campus as a whole is working on different levels of emergencies, which is a really great program for all of us,” Novak said.

After a problem is discovered, according to Arnett, a message is sent to Village residents and Kenyon administrators. Once Arnett gets the message, he notifies Kenyon College faculty, staff and students via text, call and email through the RAVE Alert system. This mobilizes the Office of Housing and Residential Life and the Maintenance Department. Then, Arnett’s job is to figure out the who, what, where and how long of the situation and to send all-employee and all-student emails with updates.

But there does not appear to be any sort of solid plan to prevent these situations.

“As the infrastructure gets upgraded, it makes sense to assume that failure becomes less and less likely,” Arnett wrote. “But there will always be a portion of this that just cannot be predicted.”

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