By Dave Rogers
---- — PLUM ISLAND — The possibility of failing fire hydrants and deteriorating water connections to homes were among the worst-case scenarios revealed by Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday last night to a standing-room-only crowd at PITA Hall who came to hear the latest news regarding the island’s troubled water and sewer systems.
While Holaday and other city officials downplayed the chance of either scenario taking place, there was enough concern regarding the condition of the island’s 187 hydrants, which are connected to the new system, that seasonal flushing was canceled for fear it could damage them, according to Holaday. The city will be checking those fire hydrants and connections, she added.
After the meeting, Holaday said the city had known about the fire hydrant issue since February when an automobile accident damaged a hydrant and led to officials noting potential issues related to bolts that connected hydrants to the water system.
During the roughly 90-minute briefing, Holaday said that contractor CDM Smith of Cambridge acknowledged significant corrosion had been found at two water mains that had burst since the 2007 installation of the island’s $22.9 million water and sewer systems. The first water main break took place in April 2011 near the Plum Island Bridge and another during Super Storm Sandy last October.
In addition to fixing the two troubled areas, the contractor has agreed to take 50 additional soil samples to determine if the corrosion issue is found elsewhere in the system.
“This is just one little tiny fix they want to do,” Holaday said, regarding fixing the two water main areas.
Over the last year, Plum Islanders have been temporarily left without water on several occasions as the system has sputtered. There is growing concern among municipal leaders that major problems could arise should it be determined that a fundamental problem exists. In recent months, city leaders have launched a study looking at the air vac system to determine what is plaguing the sewer lines, which run from the mainland to both Newburyport and Newbury residents on Plum island.
At the state level, Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office, which is conducting a separate criminal investigation into the construction of the Plum Island Utility Services Project, recently announced it found construction defects, in particular, the failure to guard against corrosion. But so far, the state Department of Environmental Protection, working closely with Coakley, has found no evidence that the identified construction defects pose any risk to public health.
“Our office is working toward a legal resolution to correct the problems with the Plum Island utility system. Any attorney general resolution is separate from, and will not interfere with, the city’s own legal rights. Our office has informed the city that our action does not preclude it from providing further details about the scope of this problem to the public,” the attorney general’s spokesman Michael Puffer said.
For months, Holaday said she was unable to talk about much of the city’s discussions with CDM Smith of Cambridge and D & C Construction Co. in Rockland due to a gag order imposed by the attorney general’s office that Holaday said she was required to sign.
That had led to many residents vociferously voicing their displeasure with the mayor’s office, saying she was keeping Plum Island in the dark.
But last night, Holaday said she was free of the gag order imposed by the state, allowing her to share as much information as she did. For the most part, residents who filled the hall were satisfied with Holaday’s explanation, with only a handful of people seemingly still upset with the lack of information.
Some of the information has been shielded from the public as Holaday and city attorneys, along with those working in the state attorney general’s office, have urged city councilors to keep the information gleaned from the study private. Holaday has said the city has retained a private law firm to help it correct the problem. Litigation of both a criminal and civil nature is possible, municipal leaders say.
City Councilor Dick Sullivan Jr., who was in attendance last night and is challenging Holaday for the corner office, had called for the unsealing of all City Council executive session meeting minutes related to water and sewer lines running to Plum Island. By a narrow vote of the City Council on the last day of September, Sullivan’s motion failed to pass.
Sullivan, a retired city firefighter, did speak to the crowd last night, saying he was concerned about the condition of the island’s fire hydrants and added that a water main break had the potential of causing property damage.
Plum Island Foundation cofounder Robert Connors, who lives in Newbury, conducted what little crowd control was needed, imploring residents in a loud voice to stick to the topic at hand whenever ancillary issues arose. Connors then asked if the statute of limitations still applied to the project, allowing the city and state to continue its pursuit of criminal and civil litigation if necessary.
Holaday didn’t mince words in terms of her feelings for CDM Smith, saying that while they have been cooperative with the city since the matter first arose, she was very disappointed.
“This is totally unacceptable, totally unacceptable what they have done,” Holaday said, adding another briefing for Plum Island residents will be held before the end of the year.
The meeting closed with state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, urging residents to remain patient with the process as the city and state look to solidify their complaints against the contractors. He said the city and state should take all the time they need to ensure that should a settlement be reached with the contractors, that it’s the best one possible.