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Latest high school leak washes up bad memories

The water leak occurred in a math teacher's classroom. This copper piping froze and cracked in two spots. The pipe distributes hot water for the school's heating network.

Last week the Journal's top headline read: "Pipe cracks, school floods."

Déjà vu, anyone?

Back in 2001-02 new school superintendent Boyd McLarty had to deal with a laundry list of construction flaws at the just-opened high school.

A front-page Journal photo from Oct. 4, 2001, shows a spectacular leak -- more like a cascade -- in progress. Just after 3 a.m. on a Saturday the joint of a hot-water line in a hallway ceiling burst.

Steam from the busted pipe triggered the fire alarm. A night janitor on duty phoned Waupun-based Westra Construction -- the company that built the school -- about the emergency.

Local firefighters and River Falls Municipal Utilities crews responded. The water was quickly shut off.

Firefighters slogged through inches-deep water, much of it in the science-tech wing. They pushed and mopped the water into rooms with drains. No carpeting was ruined but some floor and ceiling tiles along with boxes of books were damaged.

Westra was expected to pay costs from the incident, which happened a month after the high school opened -- an opening delayed two days because construction was behind schedule.

Numerous water-pipe breaks were also reported just before and in the months after the new high school opened in September 2001.

As a result, by March 2002 the school district brought in a "construction attorney." It also withheld $2.5 million in final payments to Westra until various problems were fixed, including this prophetic one as reported then by the Journal:

n A dozen leaks so far in the school's plumbing and the discovery of many other spots where pipe joints weren't "crimped" (closed). The suspicion is that many other pipe joints, including behind walls, are not crimped and could bring future leaks, flooding and promote growth of harmful mold.

McLarty said that because of all the leaks, the standard one-year warranty on the new school's plumbing was inadequate.

Back to the future: December 2008, same school (now seven years-plus old), same old leaky problem. This time another new superintendent, Tom Westerhaus, is in charge.

The latest major pipe break occurred on a weekend, just after school had closed for the two-week winter holidays.

A copper pipe -- part of the hot-water heating system -- in the outside wall of Val Schmidt's math classroom froze and broke in two places during the night. Running water spilled to the halls, locker bays and into 10 math and special-ed rooms on the first floor.

An early morning janitor found the spillage. A huge, immediate effort was launched in the next six hours to contain and clean up the mess.

The all-out effort drew about 50 people. Westerhaus was impressed.

"It was an unquestionable response from administrators, teachers, a board member, even my wife, but in particular, from the custodial and maintenance staff arriving from all our buildings. No one batted an eye about helping out, changing vacation plans for the holidays, just doing what they could to head off this crisis," he said. "Everyone was committed. They're the real heroes."

While subzero wind chills likely contributed to the burst pipe, an online Journal reader voiced several concerns:

How could this happen? Aren't these pipes insulated and the building heated? This shouldn't be happening to a school that was built not long ago. It makes you wonder just how the rest of the building is.

Westerhaus said the broken section of pipe was insulated but added the cause of the break is being investigated.

"We are looking over crawl spaces, and the insulation and location of other pipes," he said, adding that the inspection would show if any other place in the school is vulnerable.

Admitting that December was bitterly cold, Westerhaus said, "It's not like we haven't had these kinds of temperatures before. That's why we have to have this checked out."

While the district's insurance company gave the green light for the cleanup, Westerhaus said coverage and what deductibles apply isn't known yet. He said it's possible everything will be paid for by insurance.

Cleanup expenses include overtime labor for district employees; bringing in the district's maintenance firm, a sub-contracting emergency response team and an environmental consultant; air-testing equipment; renting carpet extractors, floor machine cleaners, and industrial-type carpet blowers, fans and dehumidifiers.

"At this point it looks like all the carpeting, except perhaps in the room where this happened, is going to be salvageable," Westerhaus said. "After it's been dried, we are shampooing the carpeting with a fungicide."

Saturated lower walls and trim were cut away, to be replaced with new sections of Sheetrock, then taped and painted. Desks, equipment and furniture were pushed out of rooms but not damaged.

While water did flow to some student lockers, Westerhaus said the contents of those lockers wasn't harmed.

The flooding news wasn't all bad.

If the pipe break had occurred during a typical week, some classes next day would have been shuffled to another part of the building. Indeed, high school might have been canceled for a day as the large-scale cleanup began.

"It was a terrible thing to have happen, yet it was a good timing in a way because school was out for a long break," Westerhaus said. "Still, the building was never shut down. We still have activities and team practices going on this week. And next Monday and Tuesday we have the (Northern Badger Classic) tournament at the high school."

Looking ahead, Westerhaus said the outside firm brought in to oversee the cleanup, quality-control monitoring and repairs says the flooded section will be usable when school reopens after the holidays on Monday, Jan. 5.

"That's the prediction," Westerhaus said. "They've told me you won't even be able to notice that anything was ever wrong."