, Newburyport, MA

January 16, 2013

Problem plagues PI water system

Issue witheld from public for months


---- — NEWBURY -- The water system on Plum Island faces serious and potentially costly problems, thanks to what appears to be substandard equipment in shut off valves.

In a statement issued on Monday, Town Administrator Tracy Blais said that officials in Newburyport have identified failures in the $22.9 million system and are “working closely with the engineers who designed the system, as well as state officials and the officials of the town of Newbury, to determine the cause of those failures and the methods and procedures necessary to address those failures and prevent their recurrence.”

When reached for comment on Tuesday, Selectmen Chairman Joe Story said he could only confirm that his board has had meetings with the Newburyport mayor and that he “feels she is doing the right thing.”

For months, rumors have circulated on Plum Island that the eight-year-old water system suffers from a serious problem related to bolts that hold pipes together. But Newburyport officials have declined to comment on the problem, and in some cases have said they are not aware that there’ a problem. The city has been engaged in secret settlement talks with a company or companies involved in the installation, and planned to delay making a public announcement until a solution to the problem is reached.

Although most of Plum Island’s 1,200 homes are in Newbury, Newburyport is the primary manager of the water and sewer system because it hooks directly into Newburyport’s existing water and sewer infrastructure.

Blais’s statement did not indicate which specific areas in the system are sub-par. But according to Daniel Mahoney, who runs his family’s business Mr. Moe’s Package Store on Plum Island Boulevard, the problem lies with the equipment that controls how water flows into a building. Mahoney says that according to a source in Newbury town government, a small piece that connects to the shut off valve was left off when the water pipes were installed -- either that, or the wrong piece was inadvertently used. Mahoney declined to reveal the name of his source but said he feels confident the person was in a position to know of what he or she was speaking.

The Plum Island resident says he has had no luck getting answers about the problem from Newburyport officials, whom he believes have known about it for months. He’s been told from his source that plans by officials to notify the public about the issue were delayed in July and then again in October.

After the water pipe let go in November and flooded the basement in the 20th Street home of his brother, Pat Mahoney, Dan Mahoney said he felt he needed to go public with his concerns.

He fears the faulty equipment could compromise the entire system, resulting in “every shut off valve on Plum Island on the street side” giving way. He foresees a potential for significant property damage from flooding in basements and on driveways, and worries about the possibilities of electrocution and carbon monoxide poisoning from water logged furnaces and electrical equipment.

Mahoney notes that Plum Island property owners already pay a hefty betterment fee -- his own family has paid $105,000 into the system. They deserve some answers about a problem that could ultimately impact their ability to resell their homes in the future. He’s been told that the company that installed the pipes is no longer in business. Does that mean ratepayers will wind up footing the bill for the installer’s mistakes, he wanted to know?

Mahoney insists that if there is a problem and city officials know about, then he and others who live on the island have a right to know about it too.

According to Blais’s statement, “(Newburyport’s) City Engineer is reviewing all of the plans and documents related to the system design and construction to pinpoint any system vulnerabilities and determine how best to address such issues.”

She adds that it is her understanding that “the city is disappointed that such failures have occurred, and is determined to resolve this issue so that public health and safety, as well as the safety of the environment, are protected.”

The process to bring water and sewer to the island dates to 1980, when the state Legislature first formed the Plum Island Water District to find a clean drinking water supply for the island.

When the state Department of Environmental Protection began enforcing Title V --a regulation setting minimum distances between well and septic systems -- in the late 1990s, as many as 70 percent of the island’s buildings did not meet the regulation’s requirement and would have been rendered uninhabitable without water and sewer service.

In 2000 the $22.9 million joint project between Newburyport and Newbury began to take shape. The engineering firm Camp, Dresser and McKee was hired through a no-bid process and construction began in 2004.

But snags have plagued the project since its inception.

The two towns and the excavation contractor were fined $45,000 when sand contaminated with chunks of paving was dumped onto the beach.

The wrong type of gasket was installed in roughly two miles of piping, but CDM said that the gaskets would hold.

A contractor unexpectedly hit rock ledge when drilling under the Plum Island River in an area where CDM had determined no ledge existed. The problem cost an extra $87,000 to reroute the pipes.

Expenses for police details on the project were three times what was budgeted and police said at times there were too many, or too few, officers assigned to duties.

Yet despite the frustration of property owners over what they feel has been severe mismanagement, an audit conducted in 2006 found that the project’s management and financial oversight were generally sound.