Mass. officials vow probe into water main break as residents deal with 3rd day of boil order

By Steve Leblanc, AP
Monday, May 3, 2010

Mass. vows probe into cause of water main break

BOSTON — Officials vowed Monday to get to the bottom of what caused this weekend’s failure of a seven-year-old water main, even as they inched closer to lifting a boil water order for 2 million eastern Massachusetts residents.

Gov. Deval Patrick said late Monday that he expected to be able to make that call “very soon,” but declined to be more specific.

Testing was continuing on the quality of water samples gathered from more than 400 locations in the affected area. The samples were collected after repairs to the 10-foot wide pipe were completed and water was again allowed to flow to about 30 communities including the city of Boston.

The breach on Saturday forced the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority to use a backup system. Officials could not guarantee the water was safe and told residents to use bottled water or boil tap water for a minute before using it to drink, cook or brush their teeth.

On Monday, President Obama signed an emergency disaster declaration offering federal help. The declaration authorizes the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief efforts with local authorities.

As the initial crisis began to ease, state officials said they were determined to find out what caused the failure of a seven-year old pipe designed specifically to avoid such a catastrophic failure of the water supply network.

Patrick said that before investigators can figure out what went wrong — and who to blame — they have to conduct “forensics” on the part of the pipe that failed. Portions of the pipe were washed into the Charles River and need to be recovered.

“We have to get the parts that failed and examine them,” Patrick said. “I want to understand where those parts have been used elsewhere in the system.”

Patrick said the blowout helps justify his administration’s decision to push ahead on construction of a second, redundant water delivery system to help avoid a similar interruption of service in the future.

Democratic House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who’s hometown of Winthrop was under the boil water order, said he’s anxious to make sure that ratepayers aren’t left holding the repair bill.

“I want to make sure that the ratepayers and the taxpayers in Massachusetts are protected as we go along this process,” he said.

DeLeo said he’ll scheduled a public hearing in the next several weeks to look into what caused the leak, whether it was avoidable, if there is a risk for another such blowout.

MWRA executive director Fred Laskey said the agency made a strategic decision early on not to focus on the question of what went wrong, but instead on how to fix the leak.

“We have purposely not spent time trying to sort that out, figuring there’ll be time afterward to sit down and figure out where this all goes, what are the financial impacts, what do we have to investigate,” Laskey said.

The pipe where the blowout happened was constructed to avoid exactly the situation that has occurred in the greater Boston area over the past few days.

Completed in November, 2003, the pipe replaced an 1940’s-era surface aqueduct known as the Hultman Aqueduct. At the time, MWRA officials worried that a failure of the aqueduct “could have caused nearly complete interruption of Boston’s water supply” according to the agency’s website.

“This would have been a disaster for the region’s public health, safety and economy,” the agency said. A retrofit of the aqueduct, meant to be used as a backup to the new tunnel, is under way but not completed.

On Monday, the president of the company that built the pipe said he’s working to solve the problem.

Vincent Barletta, president of Barletta Heavy Division Inc., said in a statement that the company “will cooperate fully” with state authorities to “help determine why this failure occurred.”

Barletta built the portion of pipeline that ruptured in suburban Weston on Saturday, and also helped with the repairs.

Attorney General Martha Coakley said that as yet, her office is not directly involved in any investigation or potential legal action, but is ready to help MWRA lawyers if needed.

She said the situation is similar in part to the situation at the Big Dig when questions arose over how to recoup some of the money spent on the project. She said then-Attorney General Tom Reilly at first deferred to the agency, but later worked out a memorandum of understanding allowing the AG’s office to step in.

Like the investigation into the fatal collapse of tunnel ceiling tiles in the Big Dig, the first step will be to find out what went wrong before placing blame, Coakley said.

Boston area residents did their best to cope with the inconvenience, stocking up on bottled water and paper plates to avoid having to boil water to wash dishes.

At Fenway Park, where the Red Sox were opening a series Monday night with the Los Angeles Angels, water fountains were turned off and signs posted around the ballpark reminded fans of the ‘boil water’ order. The Red Sox brought in ice from Rhode Island for the clubhouse.

Concession stands were selling bottled soft drinks instead of fountain mixes, and beer service wasn’t affected.

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