NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

February 18, 2013

No answers yet to problems with PI water system

Newburyport City Notebook
Dyke Hendrickson

---- — 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.

This is a tough moment for the team at City Hall. Political folk hate to add to their meticulously groomed budgets.

But that is the order of the day. Holaday and her team must come up with money for lawyers, independent engineers and unbiased testing laboratories.

Yes, the city might get the money back when all is sorted out.

But for now, cash will be flowing out the door in the hope of learning why there are major flaws in the system — and who is responsible.

Holaday is doing the right thing. But it can’t be easy.

Meanwhile, City Council President Tom O’Brien must be having an “I told you so” moment as this investigation plays out.

O’Brien — who might be considered the council’s pragmatist — voted against the project at almost every financial turn.

For instance, during a vote for a key funding bill in July 2000 that approved an appropriation of $9.3 million, the vote was 10-1 in favor. The lone negative vote was that of O’Brien.

Of course, those pro-project councilors have left the building. The City Council in 2000-2001, under Mayor Lisa Mead, included ward representatives Bruce Brown, John Norris, Karen Kelly, Erford Fowler, Brenda Swartz; at-large councilors were Al Lavender, Audrey McCarthy, John Pramberg, Bert Reed and Joseph Spaulding. And O’Brien.

If there is any consolation for Holaday and the present council, it is that they were not in office when the project was discussed and funded.

But that may be the only source of (faint) relief at this challenging moment in the city’s history.

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The following meetings are scheduled this week and are open to the public:

Tuesday

Teamsters 170 meeting, 4 p.m., City Hall.

Conservation Commission, 6:30 p.m., City Council Chambers.

Wednesday

Board of Water Commissioners, 5:30 p.m., 16A Perry Way.

Planning Board, 7 p.m., City Council Chambers.

Thursday

School Building Committee, 6:30 p.m., mayor’s conference room, City Hall.

Parkers Commission, 7:30 p.m., City Council Chambers.

Historical Commission, 7:30 p.m., City Council Chambers.

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Dyke Hendrickson covers Newburyport for The Daily News. He can be reached at 979-462-6666, ext. 3226 or dhendrickson@newburyportnews.com.