, Newburyport, MA

January 20, 2013

'Gag order' mutes PI woes

Mayor briefs City Council in closed-door meeting

Staff Writer

---- — NEWBURYPORT — A special Saturday meeting of the City Council to discuss the vulnerable water system on Plum Island ended with the announcement that the causes of the problems there likely won’t be made public until mid-February.

Councilors went into executive session shortly after the late-morning meeting started and for more than two hours, they and Mayor Donna Holaday engaged in discussion behind closed doors.

No plans for remedial work were announced, because right now city officials evidently don’t have empirical proof as to what the problem is.

In a joint statement from Holaday and the council, the city leaders said, “The mayor and council are committed to completing the investigation and finding solutions to potential design and construction issues in the Plum Island water and sewer systems.”

It also said, “Everything is being done to protect the citizens and the ratepayers. The system is operational and the city endeavors to maintain the level of service you deserve. The mayor will be hosting a meeting in mid-February where more details will be provided to the public.”

The seven city councilors present did not comment after the meeting, citing restrictions invoked because they were in executive session. Absent were councilors Ed Cameron, Barry Connell and Ari Herzog; councilor Allison Heartquist attended by speaker phone.

In the few minutes that preceded the executive session, several councilors — including Bob Cronin, Tom Jones and Dick Sullivan Jr. — conveyed frustration that they could not explain the situation to their constituents.

David McFarlane of Plum Island, a former city councilor in Newburyport and the only resident of about a score present who spoke, said, “I urge this to be an open meeting so the people of Plum Island will be aware of the dangers.”

Council President Tom O’Brien, though, said that city guidelines state that an executive session with its associated “gag order” is appropriate when discussing litigation strategy. All councilors voted for the executive session.

The unusual Saturday meeting was convened in part because stories in The Daily News had reported that “problems” in the water system on Plum Island were serious — and under study.

But the problems have not been publicly defined by officials in Newburyport or Newbury.

The reports evidently alarmed many residents of Plum Island, who have demanded to know the nature and immediacy of what appear to be construction issues.

But problems on Plum Island will also affect ratepayers in “inner” Newbury and Newburyport, who together are part of a water district.

Though most of the island’s 1,200 homes are in Newbury, ratepayers in both communities will be responsible for funding repairs and/or higher rates if major work on the system is required, officials said.

In a phone interview, Holaday expressed frustration that she is not allowed to discuss the matter publicly yet. Holaday and other city leaders have been resolute in not speculating about what could be wrong, but a study has been under way for close to 18 months to identify problems.

One apparent manifestation of trouble occurred in late October, when a major water main broke during Superstorm Sandy. Many Plum Island homes were briefly without water as a result.

That break was fixed, but it seems to have added to the speculation about structural problems with the water system.

Several Plum Island residents with construction experience speculate that the bolts connecting large water pipes together are corroding and “letting go.” Since the underground pipes run for several miles, it could be a huge undertaking to check and/or replace such bolts.

On a separate issue, other residents say that pipe and valve work between underground water mains and individual residences could be faulty. A resident of 20th Street in Newbury reported that a connector from the water main under the street to his home “gave out” and water entered his basement. He said the disruption was traced to a connector between the shut-off box and the main.

Thus it appears that engineers are investigating at least two separate issues: bolts that connect the mains and shut-off boxes that are placed between the street and the residence.

City officials say they have been reviewing the work of the design and construction companies that created the intricate system, which cost about $22.9 million. Past contractors would include Camp, Dresser and McKee, Inc., of Cambridge, and D & C Construction Co. in Rockland. Both companies are still in business.

Municipal leaders have also been working with “high-level state agencies with legal clout.” City officials stress that because there might be litigation, they do not want to talk about specifics of the situation.

It appears that much of the day-to-day investigation has been run through the mayor’s office. On Saturday, Holaday brought councilors up to speed on the city’s efforts to identify the cause of problems and a solution to fix them.

In the meantime, “The system is 100 percent safe and operational,” Holaday said. “We are monitoring it and will continue to do so.”