NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Local News

February 18, 2013

No answers yet to problems with PI water system

City officials last week took on a chore that most municipal leaders abhor: They admitted that the city has a serious problem but they don’t (currently) have a solution.

Mayor Donna Holaday hosted an information session to confirm that the water system on Plum Island is vulnerable to disruption, or worse.

She’s been working on the matter since a water main to the island burst 19 months ago. After subsequent breaks, residents and business owners on the island have been clamoring for an explanation.

Holaday, to her credit, convened engineers, lawyers and city officials for a public meeting to collectively say, “We don’t know what’s wrong.”

It’s generally believed that some bolts attaching sections of water mains — and possibly units to homes — are failing.

Optimists note that the breaks in the main have come in lines near the marsh, so perhaps the problem is limited.

If the bolts themselves were corroded by salt conditions introduced by ocean water, the probe might have discernible limits. But if the bolts — all the bolts — were of an inferior quality or incorrectly installed, the number of vulnerable connections to unearth could be in the hundreds.

One aspect of the investigation is that municipal leaders do not want to alienate the key developer of the $22.9 million system, the Cambridge firm of CDM Smith.

The city wants to foster cooperation, not confrontation. To wit, this is an international company with a formidable legal division that could stonewall a lawsuit if it chose. So a cooperative search for answers is under way.

One troubling detail revealed at the session was Holaday’s statement that many of the engineering documents used in the construction were destroyed in a storm several years ago.

They were evidently kept at the old wastewater plant offices on the river and were lost. It does not appear that copies were kept or put on computer backup, so some aspects of the system will be discussed without documentation.

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