‘In the middle of a massive rehab’

Tunnel failure came before backup could be finished

By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / May 2, 2010

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Massachusetts Water Resources Authority engineers knew it was a race against time to build a backup system to ensure Greater Boston residents have clean water to drink.

Yesterday, they lost.

Ever since the massive MetroWest tunnel carrying drinking water from the Quabbin was built seven years ago, engineers have been working on the pipe it replaced — the Hultman Aqueduct, which was constructed in 1939 and runs from Marlborough to Weston.

The MetroWest tunnel, part of a $1.7 billion water system upgrade, was celebrated as a state-of-the-art tunnel, but engineers — and government officials — feared a terrorist attack or some catastrophic failure to such a critical aqueduct.

So they began working on retrofitting the Hultman tunnel, which carried virtually all the water to Greater Boston for decades. After years of detailed inspections, construction began in July to repair it and build five connector pipes to the MetroWest tunnel that runs roughly parallel to it a few hundred feet away. The idea was that if there were a major problem with water flowing to Greater Boston residents, they could divert water from the MetroWest tunnel over to the Hultman.

“We are in the middle of a massive rehab of the Hultman to exactly avoid this from happening,’’ a grim Frederick A. Laskey, the MWRA executive director, said yesterday. “It’s unbelievable.’’

The $48 million repair program was scheduled to be completed in 2014 and included repair of some 13 miles of pipe, culverts, manholes, and other work, according to the MWRA website.

The Hultman tunnel was always seen as a priority, and even as ratepayers debated costs across the entire MWRA system, there was relatively little argument about the need to upgrade the old aqueduct.

“You always need redundancy,’’ said Joe Favaloro, executive director of the MWRA advisory board, which advocates for ratepayers. He said it was unclear how bad the problem is, and what costs would eventually fall to ratepayers.

“You don’t budget for catastrophic failures on pipes less than a decade old,’’ he said. “The irony is of course that the [much older] tunnel is fine. The piece that collapsed is less than a decade old.’’

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