Governor Deval Patrick said water quality tests on the MWRA system are "going well'' this afternoon, but he stopped short of declaring an end to the drinking water crisis that has impacted some 2 million people in Greater Boston.
"We are in the process of turning the water on and testing it for safety,'' Patrick said at the Statehouse this evening. "That is going well. It's not complete, but it's going well. We hope to have final results very, very soon.''
Patrick and other state officials refused to update the timeline they announced earlier today when they suggested normal water supply would resume in 48 hours.
"We have to wait and see,'' said Patrick. "We want to take the time to make sure we can get this right.''
Patrick gave his update on the water drinking crisis that began on Saturday when a metal collar binding 10 foot tall pipes gave way in Weston, forcing the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority to change the source of drinking water for 29 communities. Public health officials then issued mandatory boil-water orders for residents.
According to state officials and the MWRA, water quality samples are being collected from 428 testing locations twice a day. Those samples spend 18 hours in an incubator before they can begin to generate usable results about the presence – or absence -- of any harmful bacteria or other contaminant.
Patrick spoke at the end of a day during which President Obama signed an emergency disaster declaration, which could help the state recover some of its costs, and the MWRA managed to reconnect the MetroWest Tunnel with the City Tunnel far sooner than initially expected.
Also this afternoon, workers here began pouring concrete on the massive pipe and the rebuilt collar after the still-unexplained failure this weekend. Re-covering the pipe is the last visible repair to be done, officials said.
"We worked really hard to get this system back on line before people woke up this morning for their showers,'' and other morning routines, said Charles Button, chief engineer of the MWRA.
The National Guard and state officials were dispensing thousands of gallons of fresh bottled water to affected communities. In slightly more than an hour this morning, Saugus had depleted 840 boxes of bottled water the state had sent to the North Shore town to help with the water quality concerns.
Schools and businesses took special precautions amid orders to boil any water used for drinking and cooking. Many schools asked parents to send children to class with clean water and hand sanitizer. Administrators said they were shutting off or taping over water fountains, and many said they would drop from cafeteria lunch menus any produce that needs to be washed.
State officials said they were unable to explain exactly what caused the rupture in a collar helping to connect two major water pipes. Today, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said he would wait until "things settle a little bit" and the system is back on line before convening hearings into what went wrong.
"Closely thereafter, before it gets not too far along, (lets) have a hearing at that point. I would say within a couple of weeks,” DeLeo told reporters.
Attorney General Martha Coakley said she would review reports of price gouging by stores selling bottled water.
And state and local officials were attempting to make sure water was available for vulnerable populations, such as the elderly in nursing homes, as some communities began asking for help distributing water to needy residents.
The state ordered 2.5 million gallons of drinkable water and asked the federal government for help in securing additional supplies if necessary.
Coakley set up a hotline for people to call in tips about alleged price gouging. The number is 617-963-2400.
People flocked to convenience stores and groceries in search of bottled water, amid scattered reports of shortages. Minor rituals of daily life — brushing teeth, washing hands, doing dishes — suddenly seemed freighted by the risk of disease.
State officials urged residents to take seriously an order to boil all water used for drinking and cooking, even as they acknowledged that the likelihood of becoming sick from the water is small. Pipes into affected homes and businesses are now delivering mostly-clean water through a backup system, but about 3 to 5 percent is “pond water’’ from the Chestnut Hill Reservoir.
The water is being heavily chlorinated to kill bacteria, but the MWRA said people shouldn’t drink it because no test results are back yet on bacteria levels.
The crisis began early Saturday, when the metal collar, which wrapped around a rubber gasket, ruptured in a pipe system that delivers water from the Quabbin Reservoir to Boston. The collar, along with millions of gallons of water, then washed into the nearby Charles River.
Patrick said “the extent of the damage is not as great as we feared.’’ But, he said, workers should search for the broken collar and then conduct a “forensic analysis’’ to determine how it broke.
Patrick, who visited the leak site twice over the weekend and has held three news conferences about the crisis, today canceled plans to travel to Chicago where he was to the BIO International Convention, a major gathering for the biotech industry.
Frederick A. Laskey, executive director of the MWRA, said the failure could have been caused by the design, construction, or installation of the collar. Officials did rule out one theory discussed early in the crisis: that a minor earthquake could have jolted the pipes.
The collar, a large version of a standard component used to connect pipes or pipe segments in many water systems locally and nationally, was installed seven years ago by Barletta Heavy Division of Canton, the same firm that is fixing it now. State officials said they asked the company to make the repairs because it knows the pipe system well, had a replacement collar available, and had heavy equipment near the scene.
MWRA officials were looking through records to determine the manufacturer of the collar.
They were also trying to determine whether the collar was protected by a warranty, but they cautioned that was highly unlikely. Once pipes are tested and inspected, most warranties last less than two years, said Button, chief engineer for the water authority.
Authorities are also seeking emergency permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection to remove some 400 cubic yards of sediment that washed into the Charles. On Sunday, the river was still a muddy brown in Waltham, about 4 miles from the break.
Across the region, homeowners and businesses seemed to be doing their best to adapt to life without drinking tap water. But there were telltale signs that life in the Boston area was at least slightly off kilter.
Dunkin’ Donuts, for one, was not selling coffee at its stores in the region. On an Amtrak train from Boston to New York yesterday, signs on the restrooms warned passengers: “Use water for washing ONLY. DO NOT DRINK!!!!!’’ And in the cafe car, the staff emphasized that they were serving coffee from New Haven.
The demand for bottled water — a commodity often vilified by environmentalists but suddenly a mandatory staple of Boston life — prompted inevitable shortages and allegations of unfair price hikes. Coakley promised to investigate “anecdotal reports’’ of price gouging.
“If we discover that businesses are engaging in price gouging, we will take appropriate legal action,’’ she said.
Not every community was affected. Cambridge was an oasis of calm amid the water crisis because it has its own supply of drinking water, from Fresh Pond and other reservoirs. Towns west of Weston were also blissfully unaffected by the crisis.
Beth Daley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com. Globe correspondent Emma Stickgold also contributed to this story.
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