Workers repairing water pipe; Boil order still in effect for 2 million

By Beth Daley and Michael Levenson
Boston Globe / May 2, 2010

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Workers today began repairing the massive underground pipe that abruptly ruptured yesterday, cutting off drinking water to nearly two million people in the Boston area.

Governor Deval Patrick said that if the workers can successfully patch the pipe and no other leaks are discovered, clean drinking water could be flowing back into the Boston area in "days, not weeks."

"The extent of the damage is not as great as we feared,'' he said at a press conference overlooking a crater in Weston, where workers in hard hats were welding the pipe back together.

The pipe ruptured cleanly at one of its seams, which had been connected with a large metal collar squeezing around a rubber band. Workers today were busy welding a new collar onto the pipe -- a process expected to last into the evening.

Officials then plan to test the connection and look for other potential leaks by forcing water back into the pipe. If there are no leaks, they will surround the pipe with concrete and pump clean water from the Quabbin Reservoir back into the system. The order to boil water, however, will not be lifted until officials can thoroughly test the region's water supply and make sure it is safe to drink.

"There's a long way to go," Frederick A. Laskey, executive director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, said at the press conference today. "But at least we have a road map, and we've started down the road."

When the pipe broke at about 10 a..m. yesterday, the collar washed, along with millions of gallons of water, into the nearby Charles River. Patrick said today he wants to recover the piece for a "forensic analysis" to determine what went wrong. The collar is an especially large version of a standard component used to connect pipes used throughout the MWRA system and water systems nationwide, officials said.

The collar was originally installed seven years ago by Barletta Companies of Canton, the same firm that is making the repairs today. State officials said they asked the company to do the repairs because it knows the pipe system well and already had heavy equipment near the scene.

Dennis Ferreira, Jr., a Barletta official helping to oversee the repairs today, said he had "no idea" what caused the pipe to burst. State officials said they were focused on fixing the system, and have not begun to probe what caused the rupture.

The failure could have been caused by a number of problems, including the design, construction or installation of the collar, Laskey said. "Our goal is to get it fixed and then figure out what happened,'' he said.

Officials had been building a backup system for Greater Boston's drinking water system, but it is three or four years from completion.

Across the region, homeowners and business were beginning to adapt today the lack of clean drinking water, in part by stocking up on supplies of bottled water. Water was available in many communities throughout the region, but some had run out, and although most prices seemed normal, there were scattered reports of price gouging. In a sure sign that life in the Boston area was not quite normal, Dunkin' Donuts stores in the affected communities were not selling coffee.

On an Amtrak train from Boston to New York, signs on the restrooms warned passengers "Use water for washing ONLY. DO NOT DRINK!!!!!” In the cafe car, the staff emphasized that they were serving coffee from New Haven.

Several CVS locations in Newton sold out of water today, as did a Target in Dorchester, and a Market Basket supermarket in Rowley, which sold out of its store-brand water but still had national brands. Roche Bros. in West Roxbury had a huge supply of Dasani bottled water, on flats all over the store.

The Jewish Community Center of the North Shore closed its pool, locker rooms, and men's and women's health centers because of the lack of clean water. But Legal Seafoods said in a statement that its restaurants would not be affected because it is procuring ice from regions not affected by the crisis and is using bottled water for food preparation and drinking.

State officials said they are buying 2.5 million gallons of drinkable water that will arrive on tractor trailers, each holding 55,000 gallons of water and costing $8,000. The water will largely be made available for vulnerable populations of people such as the elderly. State officials said today that they have also asked the federal government for help in securing clean water supplies if they cannot find enough.

The MWRA said it would continue supplying water to the region through a backup system that began drawing water last night from the Sudbury Reservoir, and can also tap into the Weston and Spot Pond reservoirs if necessary. The backup water, which one official compared with "untreated pond water," can be used for bathing and flushing toilets, but not for drinking or cooking.

Patrick said today residents in Boston and 28 other communities east of Weston should continue to boil water for at least a minute before drinking it to avoid the risk of getting sick. He said he had also contacted supermarkets and bottled water companies and asked them to make additional supplies of bottled water available. "This is no time to be gouging," the governor said, addressing reports that some stores have sharply increased the price for bottled water.

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