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Bostonians Seek Normal Workweek After Water Break

Government officials threw an "open-for-business" sign on Boston, anticipating that repairs to a broken pipe would be completed Monday and clean water restored to 2 million eastern Massachusetts residents.

Workers said pressure tests on Monday would show whether a break in a 10-foot-wide steel pipe in suburban Weston was the only breach. They then need two consecutive negative tests for contamination before lifting a boil-water order issued Saturday. That is not likely until later in the day, at the earliest.

Gov. Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino on Sunday urged commuters to return to the capital city. The mayor also told consumers that restaurants were open "and serving delicious meals," while the city's school superintendent, Carol Johnson, spoke for her suburban colleagues when she told school children: "We expect to see you in class on time."

Nonetheless, a boil-water alert remained in effect for Boston and 29 surrounding communities. Health officials warned of the risk of a parasite infection if residents used unboiled tap water for brushing their teeth, washing raw vegetables or making ice. The water remained safe for showering and toilet flushing, with one official likening it to lake water.

The head of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority didn't shy from stating the magnitude of the problem created when the pipe burst at a seam Saturday morning. Over the next eight hours, an estimated 65 million gallons spilled into the Charles River and forced officials to tap a reservoir filled with untreated water, potentially contaminating the supply to 750,000 households.

"For the people in the water industry, it is everyone's worst nightmare: to lose your main transmission line coming into a metropolitan area," said MWRA Executive Director Frederick Laskey.

The break interrupted normal weekend routines, with many Dunkin' Donuts franchises stopping the sale of coffee. Customers also lined up at stores to buy bottled water, and both Patrick and Attorney General Martha Coakley warned against price-gouging.

Hongbin Luo of Lexington came upon a Stop & Shop that had just restocked its shelves. He wheeled out a shopping cart with two cases of water, plus 18 one-gallon bottles.

"We want to have something to use and send off with the kids to school," Luo said.

Fellow Lexington resident Ira Goldman said he had boiled water but added, "I'm going to Europe tomorrow; it's not a big inconvenience."

Boston's water runs 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 to suburban Weston, where it branches off into the 10-foot-wide pipe that broke.

When the breach occurred, the MWRA rerouted the clean water supply 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 across the system. While the water in the aqueduct was clean, the water from the reservoir - which is in open air next to Boston College - is not, prompting the warning to boil water for one minute.

"It's difficult to determine where that line (between clean and dirty water) is so, under the rules, you make the whole district a boil-only condition, even though we know and suspect that there are substantial portions that are getting purely treated water," said Laskey.

Officials initially said a repair might take weeks, but they diverted a spare coupling from a nearby project and welders modified the parts in a matter of hours. They installed the bottom half by noon Sunday, then began attaching the top half. They expected to have the repairs done by Monday morning.

Officials remained puzzled by the cause because the break was in a stretch of pipe just seven years old. They said they would be checking the blueprints for other similar connections, to assess the risk of another breach.

"It could have been 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."

Concerned about such a vulnerability in the system, the MWRA has been repairing the original line that supplied Boston, which runs parallel to the new one. That $700 million project started nine months ago and is still three to four years from completion.

The Barletta Cos., which installed the new line and was repairing the old, was tapped to make the repairs. It already had an array of heavy equipment and parts in the area.

"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.

This program aired on May 3, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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