THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

MWRA considers abandoning search

Dig for connector costly, even risky

State Police divers searched the Charles River for any sign of the pipe connector responsible for last month’s water main break. Officials fear continuing to dig may cause more problems. State Police divers searched the Charles River for any sign of the pipe connector responsible for last month’s water main break. Officials fear continuing to dig may cause more problems. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / June 10, 2010

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The key piece of evidence in last month’s massive failure of Greater Boston’s water system — a 1-ton steel connector that burst apart — remains elusive, and further searching could risk new problems, officials said yesterday.

Continuing to look for the piece could involve much greater costs and risk unsettling the very pipe that previously disrupted the water supply for nearly 2 million people in the Boston area, engineers and water managers said yesterday.

“We have been proceeding to dig down, and dig down, and dig down,’’ said Frederick A. Laskey, director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, during the agency’s board meeting. “We’re very frustrated.’’

Crews at the water break site in Weston stopped digging Monday, and the authority is considering whether to abandon the search or try another approach. Ian A. Bowles, the authority board’s chairman and the state Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said he is inclined to try as many options as possible as long as the safety of the water supply is not compromised.

The authority’s spokeswoman, Ria Convery, also said yesterday that the authority is working on a plan with a separate board that represents cities and towns to deduct the cost of water service charged for the four days in May when boil-water orders were issued. The savings would not come for more than a year, because the authority bases its wholesale rates to municipalities on prior water usage. Even then, the impact on individual bills would probably be small and difficult for most customers to decipher because communities assess their own fees on top of wholesale rates paid to the authority.

The authority has spent $137,000 on the search for the missing piece, part of the $575,000 spent on the water leak so far. Further excavation could cost an estimated $500,000, said Fred Holland, a consultant for the authority with the firm CDM.

The state would like to pass on any costs for the search to whatever party is found responsible, and finding the clamp is key to assigning blame, Bowles said.

Despite the costs of the water failure, the authority said it intends to keep rates from rising significantly for the next budget year, which begins July 1. The board held a budget hearing before yesterday’s meeting on a proposed wholesale rate increase of an average of 1.49 percent. If approved June 30, it would be the lowest average increase since 1996, Convery said. The actual rate increase to customers varies because cities and towns pay different rates to the authority, depending on how much water their residents consume.

Laskey said the authority expects more results later this week from ground imaging near the point of the water tunnel failure and hopes the images help determine whether to halt the search for the clamp. Crews have already dug 20 feet below grade, 3 feet below the water pipe, and have begun to worry that the ground near the pipe could shift, given rising water levels and the silty sand they have encountered.

“You don’t want to have another break, and that’s what the board is struggling with,’’ Holland said.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.

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