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Crews Race To Fix Break In Boston’s Water Supply

Repairs progressed Sunday in Weston, Mass. on a water main that failed on Saturday, sending millions of gallons of water into the Charles River and prompting Gov. Deval Patrick to issue an order for area residents to boil their tap water. (AP)

BOSTON — Workers began installing on Sunday a metal collar they hoped would provide a quicker-than-expected fix to a break in a major pipe that inhibited the supply of clean water to 2 million people in the Boston area.

Adding to the pressure was an unseasonably warm spring forecast for the area, with the temperature predicted to reach a summer-like 88 degrees.

There also were economic and social impacts: Restaurants in suburban Lexington shut down Saturday night, unable to wash dishes or serve customers clean water, while police in Revere had to be called into a BJ’s Wholesale Club after a run on bottled water turned unruly.

“It was a little unclear whether we could bathe or not,” said Leenoel Chase, who was searching for coffee amid the closed shops in Lexington. “I forgot and almost brushed my teeth.”

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, top fourth from left, visits a tunnel at the site of a major water main break in Weston on Sunday. The pipe in the foreground contains a shutoff valve and feeds into the pipe that failed. (AP)

She replaced a planned pasta dinner Saturday night with a more adventurous — but less water-demanding — souffle.

The breach was reported Saturday morning in Weston, about 10 miles west of Boston. It was in a coupling holding together two sections of a 10-foot-wide metal pipe that carries 250 million gallons of treated water a day from the Quabbin Reservoir to some 750,000 households in 30 communities.

Gov. Deval Patrick ordered residents to boil water, since some untreated water has entered the system. It remained safe for firefighting, showering and toilet flushing.

Officials initially said a repair might take weeks, but they located the necessary supplies overnight and welders fashioned custom metal parts in a matter of hours.

They began installing them by midmorning, and then planned to perform a pressure test and water quality tests. They hoped all the work could be completed Monday.

“The good news is we know the extent of the problem; we’ve got a solution to fix it,” said Frederick Laskey, executive director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

Officials remained puzzled by the cause, since the break occurred in a stretch of pipe that was just seven years old.

“It could have been, you know, a design flaw, it could have been a construction flaw, it could have been that the product was faulty, it could have been something in our system,” said Laskey. “There’s just so many different variables that come into play here when you’re dealing with that much strength.”

Water surges from the ground at the site of a water main break, Saturday, May 1, 2010, in Weston, Mass. Water to 2 million people in Boston and more than two dozen suburbs is temporarily unsuitable for drinking after the break in a pipe that connects a major suburban reservoir to the city. (AP)

Concerned about such a vulnerability in the system, the MWRA has been repairing an older, parallel line, but that $700-million project is still three to four years from completion.

“We were working hard to have a solution in place for just this type of problem. Unfortunately, it came up before we were finished,” said MWRA spokeswoman Ria Convery.

Boston’s water supply comes from the Quabbin Reservoir, in the central part of the state, to the Wachusett Reservoir, before being treated at a plant in Marlborough. It travels through an 18-foot-wide pipe through Weston, where it branches off into the 10-foot-wide pipe that broke.

When the breach occurred, the MWRA rerouted the clean water through the Sudbury Aqueduct, which hasn’t been used in decades. It also briefly tapped the Chestnut Hill Reservoir to maintain pressure and meet expected demand. While the water in the aqueduct was clean, the water from the reservoir – which is in the open air next to Boston College – is not, prompting the boil-water alert.

Yet overnight, Boston residents appeared to heed calls to reduce their water consumption. They used less than 190 million gallons, well below the normal nightly usage of more than 200 million gallons this time of year. The MWRA was able to fill the demand without tapping the reservoir again. Yet the state did not want to drop the boil-water alert because of the prospect of tapping it again.

Patrick declared a state of emergency since the water didn’t meet federal clean water drinking standards.

“It’s like lake water,” said Laskey. “You’ll swim in it, but not drink it.”

Patrick also asked large supermarket chains to increase their bottled water orders and added that, if needed, the state can distribute emergency drinking water through the National Guard.

A man shops next to shelves emptied of bottled water Sunday at a supermarket in Chelsea. (AP)

Boston Police used bullhorns to broadcast the news as they drove up and down city streets, while electronic state highway signs flashed the same message.

At the height of the breach, the pipe was leaking water into the nearby Charles River at a rate of 8 million gallons per hour, according to state officials. The deluge forced up water levels on the Charles and the state had to activate pumps at a nearby dam, Laskey said.

The authority initially reported 38 communities were under a boil-water order, but some of those communities were only partially supplied by the water system and were removed from the list when they switched to local water sources.

Further information and a complete list of affected communities can be found at the MWRA website. The Department of Environmental Protection website has a FAQ list for boil orders.

Editor’s Notes: If the MWRA website is inaccessible due to high traffic, the list of impacted communities is also available on Mass.gov.

This post has been updated to reflect the boil order for 30 communities; authorities originally issued it for 38 communities.

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  • Davi

    Why is Cambridge not on the list? Is it an inaccurate omission, or is it safe to drink the Cambridge water?

  • John

    Cambridge has its own water supply and is generally unaffected by MWRA problems. You may want to check with the water dept if you are concerned, but there is nothing yet on the city or water dept web sites.

  • Keith

    Cambridge has its own, separate drinking water supply: Fresh Pond, in Cambridge. There’s a lovely walking trail around it as well.

  • Judith l Lippa

    Is the drinking water in Needham affected?

  • Allison

    Can’t access the list, how about Quincy?

  • Linda Sherman

    is Needham affected. They are not on the list although east of Weston.

  • Wendy

    Are there any estimates on how long it may take to fix the problem?

  • Allison

    Got the list, all good. No time frame yet. Heading out for bottled H2O! Heads up boil for 5-10 minutes if drinking.

  • RB

    What should I watch for in my 12mo old who drank at least 2 sippy cups full before we learned of the order?

  • Sasha

    I was just in a CVS in Watertown, and people were literally buying enough cases of bottled water to fill their car trunks. Why not just buy a bit to drink now, then boil? Is this what it would be like in a real emergency — people being piggy about limited resources?

  • John King

    Go to any sports/camping store and pick up chlorine tablets. They use these in third world countries and for people who want to drink water from a stream but aren’t sure if it’s safe. One tablet will sterilize an entire gallon or two of water. And it tastes no different than regular water except for a slight “pool” taste. Easier then boiling and quick.

  • jenny kastner

    Cambridge gets its water from two reservoirs, neither of them Quabban. Only towns fed by that reservoir are affected; the pipe break was in that system. If your town isn’t on the list it probably also has a different water source. (Cambridge has a nicely designed waterworks where you can actually view a part of the process. It abuts Fresh Pond.)

  • Roxanne

    I understand this a 10 foot new steel pipe of about 5 years old. The thickness of the pipe has not been told. According to the picture, it looks like only one inch thick. The cut in the steel is amazing.

    Uhmmm, how many Big Digs do we need to withstand?

    Wonder what was the cause of the T fire from the other day as well after so much money poured into it as well. No cameras in the T yet? No fire emergency lights? There seems to be nothing! Except a huge contract with Microsoft for the T pass GPS system! Any thoughts on this? Security?

  • Sherman

    You’re wrong, Allison. To make water safe to drink, simply bring it to a boil. There’s no need to wait 5-10 min. According to the Wilderness Medical Society, water temperatures above 160° F (70° C) kill all pathogens within 30 minutes and above 185° F (85° C) within a few minutes. So in the time it takes for the water to reach the boiling point (212° F or 100° C) from 160° F (70° C), all pathogens will be killed, even at high altitude.

  • deg

    everyone boil your water!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Roxanne

    A 10-foot steel fairly new pipe cracks open in a second? I don’t think so…., there must have been already an opening that got bigger and bigger with time, and either no one was watching over it – or they turned their faces and let it go until it got to a catastrophic level.

    When are the journalists going to start doing their job and start investigating and ask the questions. Not to the gov! Not to the people in the streets! Ask experts! Investigate. Do your job. It doesn’t make sense. And now they are going to do patch up job? Is a thin collar enough? How come my little plant in water started forming a fungus for a week and a half ago, when for more than a year it never did? What is going on? Do they test regularly and inspect the only pipe that feeds the water to the most important cities of the Scientific Hub of the World (Massachusetts)? Which is the company responsible and why were they not doing their job?

  • Roxanne

    Thanks to Gov Deval Patrick for coming out now and giving us more needed information on the health issues and the structural problem. The Health Official should have come out much sooner though. Thanks to NECN for the coverage.

  • jeff

    We all pay water bills. First off how is that this pipe is allowed to get to the point of blowing apart like this?
    Te coupling that held two sections together was apparently corroded. I’m not sure if this is true but it was mentioned on the news last night. This is besides the point. These structures should be inspected and they should be done on a regular basis. It seems to me that however is in charge here did not do their job.

    As a paying costumer I want someone to stand up and take some ownership here. Resign, or at least own up. We live in a society where people in charge be it in government or MWRA take any ownership of their incompetence.

  • http://backbaybound@aol.com Maggie Mae

    Is clothes washing OK? Will heat of dryer kill bacteria?

  • LH

    Any suggestions re: washing dishes?

  • TAL

    @ Maggie: It sounds like clothes-washing should be all right. The MWRA director said that the untreated water is “like lake water,” so it’s not really safe to drink (although, I personally never worry when I swallow a little water while swimming in a lake), but it’s not like it’s contaminated with flesh-eating bacteria or anything.

  • Dan Ari

    Transparency, transparency, transparency. Tell us exactly when you put untreated water into the system and when you don’t. Don’t just leave a boil order without details, it feeds the mistrust of government workers.

  • Roxanne

    Heavy lobbying and push for -Privatization-of water supply for profit increasing around the world. Are we next? Is this what is behind this? Maybe a Chinese company? Is the increase of price for water next? An excuse for more corporations taking over what is supposed to be natural and for all? See this article by coincidence at The Guardian, UK newspaper:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/apr/28/private-water-suppliers

  • Viv

    I’m really affected by this. I had to go out and buy a few gallons of water. I’m utterly upset about this. I want a government bail out for the amount of hassle this has caused me.

  • jeff

    I want an investigation into why this happened.
    The excuses I am hearing by the MWRA are nothing more than sound bites. I hope they get to the bottom of this.
    It also points the how our infrastructure is falling apart and not enough investment is being made to keep things up to date.

    It seems to me that letting water-mains go for 50 or more years than what they were designed for is part of the problem. It seems to me that all to often we have large water-main breaks. Then there are our roads and bridges…

  • Tanya

    I do not, by any means, want to be insensitive to those who were affected by the water break here in MA, but, all investigations, finger-pointing and criticisms aside, I can’t help but see this as a HUGE reminder that there are billions of people around the world without access to clean water, nevermind running water in their homes. Please, before feeling inconvenienced to have to leave your house, hop in your car, drive to a store just to buy a couple overpriced gallons of tap water which you can entirely afford, and to have to do this for a few days, please consider donating the equivalent of what you’ve just spent to help establish clean water for those who have zero access to that. Women who walk 16 hours a day carring water for their household. Communities fighting water privatization by profit-driven companies who see a human necessity as a commodity. People bathing and drinking toxin-laden/disease-causing water. THIS is my first thought in all of this.

    Welcome to a fraction of the inconvenience that so much of the rest of the world tolerates. I live in Rockland where, whether it is due to the town or the building I live in, the water has a bad taste and odor (even through a Brita or after sitting out overnight,) and I don’t feel safe drinking it. I choose to walk accross the street a few times a day and re-fill four gallons with UV/RO filtered water at $.25/gallon a couple times a week. And, although it feels like an inconvenience, I always, ALWAYS remind myself to be grateful that that is all I have to do to get safe, clean water. Consider practicing gratitude by sharing your fortune.

  • Marie

    So you think that’s bad or annoying? Just wait until your utility bill for water goes up and up and up very soon to pay for ‘their’ mistake. Think it won’t happen? Yes, it will. Just like the electricity bills have gone sky high in Tennessee to pay for the catastrophic December 22 spill of coal ash from a Tennessee Valley Authority plant near Knoxville. TVA supplies electricity to Tennessee communities. Now, our electric rates have now gone sky high as a result of their mistakes and the millions of dollars that it will cost cleaning up their mess goes to the users of their electricity, not TVA. Then when the jacked up rates have paid for the clean up of their mess, the rates will stay that unreasonably high amount with no reduction in user fees after they have sucked users dry.

    It will be the same there in Boston. You will pay for their mistakes on and on and on……

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