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Water Main Break Reveals Worcester’s Crumbling Infrastructure

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


A water main break at Chandler and May Streets Monday afternoon flooded parts of the Worcester State University campus and caused officials to shut off water service to all of the city, casting light on Worcester's aging infrastructure.

Repairs to the water main were completed at around 3:15a.m. Tuesday, and the water was turned back on a few hours later, but officials said it would take most of the day for the system's pressure to return to normal levels, and a boil water advisory remained in effect until further notice.

A Critical Break

According to Matt Labovites, Assistant Commissioner for Operations at the Department of Public Works and Parks, the entirety of the city's water system had to be shut down due to the location of the break in the 30-inch water main.

"It was at a very vulnerable part of the system near Tatnuck Square," he said.

Worcester's reservior system runs down through Holden then along Olean Street and through Tatnuck Square. The 30-inch main that broke fed directly off the City's main water trunk.

"There was one key valve that was unfortunately broken, and as a result, we couldn't shut the broken 30-inch main down without shutting down the entire system," Labovites said, noting that Monday was the first time Worcester has had to do so in response to a water main break.

The water main in question was very old, said Labovites, dating back to the 1880s, but it was relined 100 years later during the 1980s. It remained unclear on Tuesday whether the water main's age played a role in Monday's rupture.

"When we made the repair and looked at the fractured peices, there was no obvious cause," Labovites said. "As happens in so many water main breaks, we may never know, but we're going to analyze the broken pieces to see."

Joe Ferson, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), said officials were performing their first round of water sampling on Tuesday and that results would be available by noon on Wednesday. The DEP will test for any bacteria that entered the water supply and to make sure chlorine levels are in line.

Ferson said the closest corollary to the citywide water shutdown would be the 10-foot water pipe maintained by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) in Weston, which broke in 2010 and prompted Governor Deval Patrick to declare a state of emergency and a boil water advisory for nearly two million people in and around Boston.

"That MWRA tunnel was a unique piece of structure," said Ferson. "In this case, this is more of a conventional type of break, although it was at a very critical juncture."

Worcester State University crews continued to clean up the campus on Tuesday. The only structure affected by water from the break was the 95,000-square-foot Ghosh Science and Technology Building, where crews worked overnight to extract water and assess damage. The building was dry and had been sanitized twice by Tuesday afternoon.

University officials were working with representatives from National Grid to address the process for restoring power to the campus after it was shut off on Monday as a safety precaution. The Massachusetts State Building Inspector was also on-site. Although the campus was closed, students were able to register for courses online according to their established registration time.

"We are grateful to the City of Worcester for their outstanding response," said President Barry M. Maloney. "We have been in constant communication and we deeply appreciate the hard working crews who worked all night and remain at work today. We ask for the patience of our students and employees as we work to restore the campus." 

An Ongoing Battle With Infrastructure

City Councilor Kate Toomey, chair of the Council's Committee on Public Works, said that Worcester is engaged in an ongoing battle to keep its more than 500 miles of roadways, and the underground pipes and infrastructure that go along with them, in proper working order.

"It's an older city and so this has to be a constant focus," she said.

"It would be great to be able to do everything at once, but we're trying to tackle as much as we can."

Toomey applauded the work of DPW-P Commissioner Robert Moylan, City Manager Michael O'Brien and all of the department heads and emergency team members that worked through the night to get the water main repaired.

"It makes me proud to be from Worcester," she said.

"That being said, we certainly do need to acknowledge that we need to continue working on our infrastructure."

While Commissioner Moylan has a plan in place for continued infrastructure improvements, said Toomey, it would be helpful if the City were able to find some federal money or state grant money so that the burden of the improvements would not fall entirely on the shoulders of Worcester's taxpayers. 

The break disrupted the water supply to the entire City of Worcester, the Elm Hill Water District and Woodland Water District in Auburn, the Town of Paxton, Century Drive corporate park in West Boylston and the Millbury Industrial Park.


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