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Hingham residents, selectmen blast Aquarion for problems with pipe, PR

Posted by Jessica Bartlett  December 14, 2011 10:55 AM

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More than two-dozen Hingham residents came and left Tuesday's Board of Selectmen meeting upset after being told that the aging and faulty water main on Union Street won't be replaced for more than a year.

The cement pipe, installed in the '40s, has broken six times this year alone and once last year. Most recently, residents lost water on Dec. 4, when a spot in the pipe burst, causing issues on the street from 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Harry Hibbard, vice president of Aquarion Water Co. operations in Massachusetts, met with selectmen about the issue Tuesday, saying that despite the high-priority of the pipe, the capital budget wouldn’t allow the company to fix the main until 2013.

“There are several projects that are equally important that we need to get to, but unfortunately, we’ve inherited an old system whose replacement needs far outstrip the cost to replace it,” Hibbard said.

According to Hibbard, the capital budget typically totals $1.5 million a year for Hingham, Hull, and Cohasset – the three towns in the region Aquarion serves. Replacing the mile-length of this pipe would cost approximately $1 million.

Additionally, the capital budget is determined by a formula related to investment return, depreciation, and “appetite for rate increases in service areas,” Hibbard said.

It was an idea that residents and town officials scoffed at.

“We can’t put more money into capital,” said Town Administrator Ted Alexiades. “We’re the fifth-highest rate paying community in the commonwealth, and we’re looking at a 19 percent increase in rates this year, but I still have to field calls. I don’t know what to tell residents that cant take a shower so they can go to work.”

Hingham selectmen are fighting a proposed 19 percent rate increase for the town that Aquarion says is necessary to pay for basic operations. The proposal currently is before the state Department of Public Utilities.

Selectwoman Laura Burns had little sympathy for Hibbard’s plight, saying that Aquarion didn’t inherit a decrepit system, but bought it. Capital fixes should then be based on need and not on a formula intended to drive profit.

“In Hingham, we know the problem of aging infrastructure. The town has been here much longer than the water system. But the way we build our capital budget is we look at what needs to be done and put it on a list…as a way to deliver a public service. I’m unimpressed with [your method],” Burns said.

In the meantime, Hibbard said, the breaks in the main could be halted once Aquarion discovers the source of the problem. Although the age of the pipe isn’t helping matters, Hibbard said he suspects it’s a pressure issue.

As such, data logs have been placed on hydrants close to the pipe to verify if pressure is the cause. Crews will also be around town in coming weeks to try to solve the problem.

It was little reassurance to residents and to public safety officials.

According to Fire Chief Mark Duff, the Fire Department was never informed of the most recent water break – a significant public safety hazard because breaks affect what equipment and what hydrants fire officials use in an emergency.

“We didn’t find out until by chance I happened to drive by and saw evidence of a water main break.” Duff said. “This is the first time this has happened, but it can’t happen again … we need to know ahead of time, but we were never given that opportunity.”

In addition, residents said it was 10 hours before they were informed of anything, and Department of Public Works representative Harry Sylvester said four newly paved roads had water breaks on them.

Hibbard said calls don’t go out until they know what the cause of the problem is, and that Aquarion had been trying to work with the town when roads were open to fix mains.

Hingham officials said there was work to be done.

“You have some messages to take back,” Burns said at the end of the discussion. “I wonder how the failure to notify public safety came about, and that’s terrifying. You have some work to do on improving your customer service while we’re waiting for the capital budget to role around and fix this main.”

Selectmen said they would write a letter to Aquarion’s president, Charles Firlotte, to voice their overall concerns. Hibbard said he would discuss issues with his public relations team as they worked to understand the problems with the main.

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