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For some locations, Plan B is working

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / May 4, 2010

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Peabody always seems to take the brunt of heavy rainstorms, particularly its flood-prone downtown. But in this watery crisis, the city north of Boston sailed through with barely a hitch.

While some 2 million people remain without fully treated drinking water as state officials scramble to restore the region’s water system, Peabody residents were, for once, only briefly inconvenienced.

The city of about 50,000 was among eight communities given a quick reprieve from the boil-water orders issued to much of the Boston area Saturday afternoon. Some were not using water from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority system that day. Others, unlike the system as a whole, had a backup plan, and were able to make a hasty switch to local sources.

All, for the most part, were relieved.

“I’m praying they were right,’’ said Weston Public Health Director Wendy Diotalevi, who notified residents the boil order had been lifted less than an hour after it was issued. Diotalevi had already been told the burst pipe would not taint Weston’s water supply, but wanted direct confirmation from state technicians.

“That’s not one you fool around with,’’ she said. “When my Water Department foreman told me we weren’t on the list anymore, I said, ‘God’s going to have to tell me we’re not on it.’ If someone thinks we’re in error, I’d rather it be erring on the side of caution.’’

On the day the ruptured pipe was discovered, the MWRA originally issued a boil-water advisory to 38 Boston-area communities from Weston east as a precautionary measure, warning that the water was not fully treated and could be unsafe for consumption. It also quickly urged communities that use MWRA water only part time to shut off their connections.

“When you have a major break, first thing you do is get rid of the partials,’’ said Ria Convery, an MWRA spokeswoman.

It soon became clear that some communities, such as Dedham and Wilmington, were not using their MWRA connections at the time of the break.

“It is safe to use for all purposes,’’ Wilmington officials wrote on the town website.

Other communities — including Needham, Stoughton, Wellesley, and Woburn — quickly turned to local sources, several of them banning outdoor watering to avoid running low.

“Most of our water is wells,’’ said Scott D. Galvin, the mayor of Woburn. “We were able to shut off the MWRA line heading into town quickly.’’

In Peabody, state officials lifted the city’s boil-water order just a few hours after issuing it Saturday afternoon, although some residents remained uncertain about the city’s status for much of the weekend. At convenience stores and coffee shops Sunday morning, some people were unaware the ban was no longer in effect and were snatching bottled water off the shelves.

Peabody uses MWRA water only as a backup to local supplies. But, in a case of unfortunate timing, it had been using it Saturday during repairs to a local treatment plant. The city shut off the flow when state officials issued the safety advisory.

Because Peabody is among the Boston-area communities served by the water authority, many residents questioned whether their drinking water was safe and pressed city officials for answers.

“We got quite a few calls,’’ said Bradley Perron, assistant superintendent of the city’s water department. “There was no way to get the word out to everyone.’’

In Dedham, which does not usually use MWRA water, the boil-water order was also brief. “We only use their water in peak season,’’ said Town Administrator William Keegan.

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