Boston Globe: Patrick Lifts Boil Order

“People turn on the tap, and they don’t think about where their water comes from and the cost that goes into maintaining clean water,” said the commission’s chairman, Senator James B. Eldridge, an Acton Democrat. “If anything comes out of what happened this weekend, I hope that people are thinking about that more.”

5/4/10
By Martin Finucane, Beth Daley, and John R. Ellement, Globe Staff

Governor Deval Patrick has announced that the “boil-water” order has been lifted for the dozens of communities that lost their supply of fresh drinking water on Saturday, ending a crisis that, at one point, had inconvenienced nearly 2 million people in the Boston area.

The governor said the water supply was now clean and safe for all purposes in all of the communities served by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority

Patrick said he was relieved that repairs to a failed pipe bringing water to the area that could have taken weeks were accomplished within 72 hours. He also promised a review of how the breach occurred.

“Now that service has been restored, we will work with the MWRA board to investigate the cause of this event to prevent anything like this from happening again in the future. If there is fault to be found, we will find it and we will hold those responsible accountable,” Patrick said.

The decision to lift the order, which required residents to boil water for a minute before using it for drinking or cooking and sent hordes of people racing to the store for bottled water, came after more than 800 water samples at 482 locations were tested, the governor’s office said. The tests showed no contamination that could threaten public health.

“If there were a sink in here, I would take a glass from the tap and drink it myself. I’m very confident,” Patrick said at a news conference in Chelsea this morning.

The state issued instructions to residents on how to flush their water systems to make sure that any possibly contaminated water in their home plumbing is removed.

Patrick, who was joined at the news conference by MWRA Executive Director Fred Laskey and other state officials, said he was “relieved that the inconvenience to 2 million of our citizens has been alleviated. I’m gratified that it was inconvenience and not something more serious. And I’m incredibly proud of all the people standing behind me.”

He thanked a variety of people, ranging from state and federal officials who worked on restoring water service, to the National Guard and the Teamsters who helped distribute bottled water.

State officials reported Monday that workers had successfully repaired the rupture in the massive water main in the town of Weston that had caused the crisis. The 10-foot-diameter pipe was a crucial link in the MWRA system, which brings water from central Massachusetts reservoirs east to Boston.

In Washington Monday, President Obama signed a disaster declaration, clearing the way for federal reimbursement of up to 75 percent of the cost of responding to the crisis. The state has not yet tallied how much it has spent on such costs as alerting residents, repairing the damage, and buying truckloads of bottled water that were still being distributed Monday night to the elderly and other vulnerable populations.

Attention, meanwhile, turned to the mystery of what caused a seam connecting the two large pipes in the major drinking water artery into Boston to sever on Saturday morning. The rupture, near the intersection of the Massachusetts Turnpike and Route 128, spilled 265 million gallons of water and pushed enormous amounts of soil into the Charles River.

MWRA officials said their focus remains the restoration of clean water to residents. But authority officials also began poring through records to determine who designed, built, and installed the seam and why it failed.

“Early on we made a strategic decision that every minute that we spend . . . trying to figure out what happened is an hour that was wasted that couldn’t be used to get the problem resolved,” said MWRA executive director Frederick A. Laskey. “There’ll be time afterwards to sit down and figure out where this all goes.”

Workers poured a concrete encasement Monday over a newly welded steel collar reconnecting the two sections of pipe to ensure that it would not fail again. Emergency repairs went far more quickly than authorities had expected, and by 6 a.m. Monday, the state said all the water flowing into affected communities was once again coming from the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts.

But the officials had warned people not to drink from faucets just yet because they feared the supply might still include water from the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, used to supplement Greater Boston’s water supply over the last few days. The Chestnut Hill water might contain harmful bacteria or might have an unpleasant taste from the large chlorine dose added to treat the backup supply.

There are multiple theories for what might have caused the pipe rupture. Charles Button, the MWRA chief engineer, said one theory is that the bolts on the collar exterior could have rusted off, but that would be unexpected because the collar was installed just seven years ago and the region’s soil is not particularly corrosive.

An alternative theory is that heavy rains in recent months eroded the soil underneath the pipe, leading the collar to break. But Button said there was no evidence of such erosion.

The search for a cause has been complicated because workers have not yet found the steel collar, which washed away when water began gushing out of the pipe.

Button and other engineers suspect it is nearby, buried in the Charles River under hundreds of cubic yards of sediment that now rises above the river surface near the rupture site. Officials hope to start excavating the sediment mound today.

It is also possible that there was a problem with the design, construction, or installation of the pipe collar, which is a large version of a standard component of public water systems.

Al Bonfatti, manager of Harding and Smith, a Walpole-based construction company, said that his firm has installed collars for several large MWRA projects, but that he was unsure whether his company installed the one where the break occurred.

“If there was a defect, it would not have passed quality control testing,” he said. “The whole thing has me puzzled.”

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, who has called for an investigation of what went wrong, said he would wait until “things settle a little bit” and the drinking water is back on line before convening hearings.

Environmentalists said the rupture highlights the need for greater attention to water infrastructure. There is an estimated $8.5 billion needed to ensure clean drinking water in Massachusetts, advocates said.

A new state commission, the Water Infrastructure Finance Commission, is hoping to find a way to fix crumbling pipes, older water-filtration plants, and antiquated monitoring equipment. The panel is scheduled to hold its first meeting tomorrow.

“People turn on the tap, and they don’t think about where their water comes from and the cost that goes into maintaining clean water,” said the commission’s chairman, Senator James B. Eldridge, an Acton Democrat. “If anything comes out of what happened this weekend, I hope that people are thinking about that more.”

Noah Bierman, Carolyn Johnson, Sean P. Murphy, and Maria Sacchetti of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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