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Johnson County utility issues prompt concern

Staff Note: On Friday, November 11, Mountain Electric replied with a press release saying the following:
“A section of northeast Johnson County experienced a power outage during the morning of December 3, 2020. The outage was reported at 10:58 AM and all power was restored to affected consumers by 1:12 PM (2 hours 14 minutes). A bus insulator at the Mountain City Substation failed, causing one of the four 13,000-volt substation breakers to operate. This resulted in a loss of power to one of the four main feeder lines, impacting 1,594 consumers in the Cold Springs and Laurel areas. Equipment failures of this type are very rare and generally provide no warning signs prior to failure.”

By Meg Dickens
Staff Writer

Recently, reports of water and electric issues have become more commonplace in Johnson County. One example is the incident on Thursday, December 3, which left one side of town without power. Unpredictable utility fluctuations can lead to problems for both individuals and organizations. Are instances increasing, or is it only reports?

The December 3 outage forced organizations in the Mountain City area to close, while businesses on the other side of town had traffic backed up to the road. A large group of locals took to Facebook to see if anyone had news on the issue. Around a dozen people reported losing power surrounding the area. Locals believe it was a substation problem. The Tomahawk reached out to Mountain Electric Co-op for more information but has yet to receive word.

Reports came in from Laurel Bloomery of recurring power-flickers both near the end of October and November. One party reported multiple busted light bulbs, both industrial and commonplace, and a nonfunctional heat pump after the issue in October. Inspectors were unable to prove that the fluctuations caused this issue.

“Several 4 ft bulbs, 8 ft bulbs, and a motion sensor bulb in my garage blew during a power surge,” explained Laurel resident Norman Dickens. “My heat pump stopped working too. A surge last year burned out our garage door opener and the ground-fault breaker. I can’t prove that the fluctuations did it, but I don’t know what else possibly could have done it. At that time (2019), the garage had its own meter.”

Citizens have been complaining about water issues for a while, but Water Collection and Distribution Superintendent Chris Hook pointed out earlier this year that the department lacked manpower. As recent as this year, headhunters were poaching employees from the area with promises of better pay.

Previous water complaints included Cold Springs, Dry Run, and Canter Road. The Mountain City Council discussed plans to work on the Canter Road plumbing issues in February but postponed action because of the amount of money spent in the department. City workers performed a smoke test on local pipes several months ago to check the integrity and plan for future work. From City meeting reports, it seems that money and manpower are the two issues that have slowed production in 2020.

“I would ask that we postpone this,” said City Recorder Shiela Shaw about the Canter Road repairs during the February meeting. “We are spending hand over fist in the water department right now. We are spending about 1.7 million dollars of our money on projects that we’ve got going on, and that’s not going to look good come audit time. I’m just looking out for the town.”

Within the county, several lines have burst within the last few months, including the main-line at Laurel Elementary and a three-inch waterline at Johnson County Middle School. Officials from the Johnson County School Board praised the maintenance workers involved, saying that the crew worked out of business hours to get the job done.

Whether utility issues are increasing at a regular pace for the winter months or not is still unknown. Experts suggest that utilities are at their most strained during the colder months. For now, all that locals can do is put faith in local organizations and extend patience to workers who have to operate in freezing temperatures.