, Newburyport, MA

February 14, 2013

PI water woes remain mystery

Lawyers hired to probe possible failures in system


---- — NEWBURYPORT — There is trouble in river city, but municipal officials don’t exactly know what the problem is.

Mayor Donna Holaday confirmed that municipal water and sewer engineers are concerned with the water system on Plum Island, which has experienced breaks in the primary line, but that testing and analysis must take place before officials can move forward with a solution.

City leaders hosted an open meeting last night to discuss residents’ concerns that the water system on Plum Island is vulnerable to serious failure.

Though most of the island’s 1,200 residences are in Newbury, the city of Newburyport is responsible for the water and sewer systems on the island.

Last night’s session was serious in tone, with officials resolute in their commitment to identify the problem and work on solutions.

Holaday said that based on several disruptions in the water line to the island over the past 18 months — and on evidence found when the breaks were repaired — city officials feel there could be material or structural failures in the system that was built in 2006 at a cost of $22.9 million.

She added the system is currently working without disruption.

“We don’t have answers at this time, but we are having this meeting to address concerns and clear up misinformation,” Holaday said.

All discussion focused on the water system, but the mayor said she “couldn’t be 100 percent sure that there is no problem with the sewer system.”

The subject of financial cost was not addressed, but it was revealed that the city, at the very least, is going to have to pay to find out what is wrong.

City officials have retained the Boston law firm of Rubin and Rudman LLP and they will be paying for soil and water analysis by an independent testing company in Delaware. It is also seeking support from an independent engineering firm.

Holaday indicated the city has to be on sure factual footing before it can consider litigation against contractors and subcontractors, should the need arise.

The mayor said that CDM Smith, the engineering, construction and operations firm in Cambridge that did much of the design and supervision work for the water and sewer system, is cooperating in the search for answers.

The mayor said that a key concern is what has been causing ruptures of the water line that runs to the island and under roadways north and south.

One theory that is being explored is whether fasteners, or spikes, that keep sections of the water mains together are defective. If so, what is the cause — wrong materials, improper implementation, dissolution because of salt or cold?

A separate issue is whether connections running from the mains to the individual houses might have been improperly installed — or installed without all necessary pieces.

About five “random” residential cases have been reported, so city officials are not concentrating on that aspect for the moment.

The city’s new lawyers, who said they must peruse about 50,000 pages of contracts and documents to get up to speed, said that performance bonds posted by construction companies have expired.

Legal authorities did say construction executives have agreed to waive a statute of limitations, so city officials arguably can keep seeking answers without the fear that they will not be able to litigate in a timely manner.

Numerous city councilors from Newburyport and selectmen from Newbury were present for the session, as were about 50 residents from Plum Island and other neighborhoods.

State Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, who has been active in Plum Island issues, said, “Clearly, there has been a failure. Someone must account for it.

“We should support the mayor and her team as the city seeks answers. This is a time for teamwork.”

No anger was evinced and little friction arose. Though the system’s defects could not be clearly defined, it did become evident that this is a large, complex problem with potentially multiple complications.