, Newburyport, MA

January 17, 2013

Council to hold special meeting on PI woes


---- — NEWBURYPORT - Municipal leaders have scheduled a special meeting of the City Council on Saturday morning to discuss concerns and strategy regarding problems with the seven-year-old water system on Plum Island.

City Council President Tom O’Brien said the session is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. It was not clear at press time whether the meeting - all or part - would be open to the public.

Newbury Town Administrator Tracy Blais this week said that the water system on the island had experienced “failures” and that Newbury officials were working with Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday on identifying any weaknesses in the system - and developing a strategy to rectify the situation.

City officials will not specify the nature or extent of the “failures.” On the island, residents who have witnessed crews making repairs have said that bolts holding the 40-foot-long main water pipes together are rusting out and failing.

George Lawler, chairman of the Newburyport Board of Water Commissioners, said concern could revolve around “the quality of the couplings” that link together segments of underground pipe.

Lawler did not see the problem as a major crisis.

“There’s no real problem,” said Lawler, a longtime municipal leader. “Executive sessions have taken place and the mayor is handling the matter.”

In a statement yesterday, Mayor Donna Holaday said, “The Plum Island Water and Sewer System is fully operational and under close monitoring by Newburyport staff from our Water and Sewer Divisions.

“Given the two water-main breaks that occurred over the past year and a half, the city initiated a thorough investigation of the system last year,” she said in her statement. “Through this evaluative process, city officials have been working in coordination with Newbury officials and in conjunction with relevant state agencies, legal counsel and various contractors who were involved in this project.”

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

A key to the future strategy seems to revolve around public disclosure. City officials appear to be negotiating with executives of the companies that deployed the system. Several city officials said that information is being guarded because litigation is possible.

City Councilor Bob Cronin declined to comment, indicating what was said in executive session was not something he wants to divulge. But he said he requested a council meeting where more can be learned about the situation.

“Due to the constraints placed on councilors by the executive sessions that were called by Mayor Holaday, I can not comment on Plum Island issues as reported in The Daily News,” he wrote in a statement. “It is my hope that we will be able to engage in public disclosure once the council meets.”

O’Brien, too, declined to speculate on future strategy.

City Councilor Allison Heartquist, who represents Plum Island, said that she has “not heard from many residents of the island” regarding the news of possible deficiencies.

“I look forward to working with the mayor, city officials and the Town of Newbury in addressing any potential issues that could impact residents of the island,” she said in a statement.

Because city officials will not say precisely what the problem with the water system is, Plum Islanders have been speculating on the problem. in one case reported this week, Dan Mahoney, owner of Mr. Moe’s Package Store on the island, said that a defective shut-off valve caused flooding in his brother’s home.

Holaday said, in a statement, “In regard to issues raised by an individual homeowner in The Daily News article of Jan. 16, this relates to the individual homeowner contractors who were required to install stainless steel inserts into the plastic service line at both sides of the curb stop to keep the service line rigid so that the curb stop can be tightened properly.

“Of the 1,241 connections (on Plum Island), we have identified only a handful that were missing this important hardware and the situations have been corrected. This issue is not related to the operations of the water and sewer system.”