OK depends on water tests

Boil order could be lifted by tomorrow

By Beth Daley and John R. Ellement
Globe Staff / May 4, 2010

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WESTON — State officials said yesterday that workers have successfully repaired a massive ruptured water pipe and are on the brink of restoring clean tap water to 2 million Greater Boston residents who, since Saturday, have been ordered to boil water for drinking or cooking.

Environmental officials are performing repeated tests on the quality of the water now flowing into homes and offices in Boston and 29 suburbs, and Governor Deval Patrick said the tests are “going well.’’ The governor and other officials refused to offer a timeline for lifting the boil-water order, but suggested the order could be lifted as soon as today or tomorrow.

“We want to take the time to make sure we can get this right,’’ Patrick said at the State House early last night. “We are in the process of turning the water on and testing it for safety. That is going well. We hope to have final results very, very soon.’’

In Washington yesterday, 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 last night to the elderly and other vulnerable populations.

Attention, meanwhile, turned to what caused a seam connecting 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.

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

But the officials warned people not to drink from faucets just yet because they fear 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.

“We worked really hard to get this system back on line before people woke up this morning for their showers,’’ said Charles Button, chief engineer of the MWRA, who said he was pleased that the agency had maximized the amount of clean water coming through pipes by the start of the workweek.

Officials say the water is safe for bathing and flushing toilets, but should not be used for drinking or cooking until testing is complete.

In order to flush any untreated water out of the system, workers opened fire hydrants yesterday, particularly in Boston and Brookline, near the Chestnut Hill Reservoir.

Officials also began collecting water samples from 428 locations in the 30 affected communities and said they would test for bacteria that can be harmful to human health.

State officials said they would have to find the water free of harmful bacteria in two consecutive tests before declaring the water safe to drink.

The testing is quite complicated. Lab researchers must analyze each batch of water carefully because isolated debris from the environment or faucets can affect the results, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The testing is also time-consuming. Each water sample must incubate for 18 hours before researchers can examine it. Normally, researchers wait eight hours before resampling a location; that can be compressed in some circumstances. Officials at the state Department of Environmental Protection refused yesterday to say whether they are expediting testing.

There are multiple theories for what might have caused the pipe rupture. Button, the MWRA 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. Beth Daley can be reached at

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