Flow restored, answers sought

Charles searched for broken clamp; Up to 2 million return to routine

By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / May 5, 2010

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With clean water flowing again into Greater Boston homes and businesses, state officials yesterday began investigating the cause of the pipe rupture that left up to 2 million people without drinkable tap water for 59 hours.

Hours after Governor Deval Patrick lifted a boil-water order for Boston and 28 other communities at 3 a.m. yesterday, State Police divers and workers armed with metal detectors began scouring the depths and banks of the Charles River for remnants of the steel pipe clamp that fractured Saturday morning in Weston, near the junction of the Massachusetts Turnpike and Route 128.

The 10-foot-diameter clamp, weighing about a ton, which is believed to have washed into the river along with 265 million gallons of water and untold amounts of debris, will be a key piece of evidence as the state attempts to determine what happened — and how to prevent anything like it from recurring. Divers did not find the collar, although several pieces of metal were recovered and will be analyzed. A contractor was expected to launch a dredging operation this morning.

“If there is fault to be found, we will find it and we will hold those responsible accountable,’’ Patrick said at a press conference yesterday.

The water was declared safe to drink after two consecutive rounds of tests, on samples taken from more than 400 locations throughout the MWRA system.

In fact, the water was probably safe during the weekend as well, according to test results of samples taken Sunday, when some pond water from a backup reservoir was flowing through the region’s pipes. But those results weren’t available until Monday — long after the boil-water was put in place Saturday. A state officials said the order was required by state and federal regulations.

All communities except Saugus had clean water by 3 a.m. yesterday, according to a spokeswoman for the governor, and Saugus’s water supply was declared clean by 6:30 a.m.

As residents awakened to the news that their tap water was drinkable, many rejoiced by turning on their faucets and brewing pots of coffee.

“I was psyched,’’ 28-year-old Matt Wilding of Jamaica Plain said while sipping coffee at a Centre Street restaurant. “It tastes great. It’s nice to be awake again.’’

Water usage jumped immediately after Patrick’s 6:45 a.m. news conference, to a daily rate of 284 million gallons, said Ria Convery, a water authority spokeswoman. The normal flow rate is about 180 million gallons per day. The surge probably occurred because officials advised the public to run tap water for 15 to 30 minutes, flush toilets, and run their dishwaters empty to purge their pipes of unpurified water.

On Monday, when the boil-water order was in effect, water usage was far below normal — 150 million gallons.

By the time the order was lifted, it had become one of the largest boil-water orders in recent years in the United States, according to those in the water distribution business, though not the most disruptive: Parts of New Orleans had a long term one after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The clamp that broke in Weston was only seven years old, and state officials have few clues in searching for the cause of the break, which occurred in a section of the pipeline carrying water from the Quabbin Reservoir in Central Massachusetts on the last leg of its journey into Boston. Officials have determined that there was no earthquake that might have jostled the clamp loose. Rusted bolts are viewed as highly unlikely on a clamp of that age.

The replacement clamp was welded to the pipes; officials said that would be stronger than bolts.

Several independent water engineers suggested that recent heavy rains might have undermined the structural integrity of the pipeline, but there was no evidence of that, MWRA officials said.

Because a problem could have occurred in the clamp’s design, fabrication, or installation, determining the cause is expected to take weeks or longer — even if the lost part is recovered. The clamp, which held together two pipe segments, was an extraordinarily large version of a common pipe connector used in household and municipal water systems.

The connector clamp apparently was a Depend-O-Lok collar manufactured by Brico Industries of Georgia. That company was bought in 1999 by Victaulic, based in Pennsylvania. It is unknown when it was made, although it was installed in 2003.

Eric Luftig, Victaulic’s director of marketing and communications, said in a statement, “There is a multitude of potential causes for the incident, such as system design and components, installation, underground stresses or a combination of these variables. We will work closely with MWRA and the other companies involved in the design, fabrication and installation of the system, toward the common goal of determining the source of the incident.’’

Water system specialists said yesterday that Boston’s pipe failure underscores a longtime problem of many financially strapped water distribution systems: the need for failsafe backup plans.

Most water distribution systems have redundancies for critical equipment, such as large pumps, that could take weeks or longer to repair if they broke, said Tom Curtis deputy executive director of the American Water Works Association, an industry group. But not many have backup pipe systems.

That’s because while pipes do sometimes break, “generally they can be put back online’’ quickly, Curtis said.

The MWRA is now repairing a leak-riddled tunnel known as the Hultman Aqueduct that was to serve as an emergency backup in case of a major water problem. The rupture was in a new tunnel system that replaced the Hultman.

Tom Baron, a former director of operations for the MWRA, said that about 18 years ago he had proposed another solution: If the agency had rebuilt an existing water avenue known as the Sudbury aqueduct, instead of the new MetroWest tunnel, it would have saved money and time.

“There was another choice,’’ Baron said.

MWRA officials said they were reviewing an e-mail from Baron yesterday.

But former MWRA director Douglas B. MacDonald, who served from 1992 to 2001, said the agency was well prepared for this week’s emergency.

During his tenure, he said, there were constant drills to ensure there would be enough water for fire protection and sanitary purposes such as flushing toilets during a major problem. “There was a whole plan in place, and (as far as I can tell) it worked,’’ MacDonald said.

Sean Murphy, John Ellement, Martin Finucane, and Travis Anderson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Beth Daley can be reached at

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