'Catastrophic' Water Main Break Affects Boston, Suburbs

BOSTON -- A "catastrophic" break Saturday in a relatively new, 10-foot wide steel pipe rendered the water undrinkable in Boston and more than two dozen of its suburbs, forcing Gov. Deval Patrick to declare a state of emergency.

The state issued a boil-water order for drinking water in the 30 affected communities, which include 2 million people in 700,000 households.

The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority was able to draw emergency water supplies from various reservoirs for bathing, flushing and fire protection. That water isn't treated for drinking, so the state issued the boil-water order.

Authority head Frederick Laskey called the break "highly unusual and catastrophic in nature," and said it came in a critical point in the system -- a tunnel that's on the main supply route to Boston and delivers 200 million to 400 million gallons a day.

The leak was reported at 10 a.m. in Weston, about 10 miles west of Boston, and it took hours for officials to stop its tremendous flow of water. The pipe was empty by Saturday evening and repairs began, but Laskey said it's not an easy fix. He said he hoped it could be repaired in "days, not weeks."

It wasn't immediately clear if the boil water would remain in effect until the repairs were completed.

"It's a complex area of piping," Laskey said. "It's a large pipe. It was probably custom made. So it's not as if there's yard we can go and pick one up and just go and put it in. It's a big problem."

Laskey said the pipe was "relatively new" -- installed less than a decade ago to connect a newer tunnel to the older system -- and the state will be investigating why it failed.

At the height of the breach, the pipe was leaking water into the nearby Charles River at a rate of 8 million gallons per hour, according to state officials. The deluge forced up water levels on the Charles and the state had to activate pumps at a nearby dam, Laskey said.

At the scene Saturday afternoon, a wall of foamy water surged about four feet high before draining through woods into the river.

The authority initially reported 38 communities were under a boil-water order, but some of those communities were only partially supplied by the water system and were removed from the list when they switched to local water sources.

Residents were notified about the order through reverse 911 calls and various media and public announcements, including flashing signs on the Massachusetts Turnpike, which runs through Weston.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, who also declared a state of emergency, said police had been to public housing projects to notify residents and emergency officials were at work around the city.

"We don't know how long this is going to last," Menino said. "We want everyone working together."

Leigh Lucas Geary, a spokeswoman for Tufts Medical Center in Boston, said the hospital was drawing from its bottled water stockpile for patients and to supply cooking water, and she had no immediate concerns about a shortage. Workers also placed warning signs over water fountains, she said. No surgeries or other medical services were affected, Geary said.

At the Market Basket supermarket in Chelsea, manager Jay Amado said all the store's bottled water was sold out 90 minutes after boil-water order was issued.

"It's all gone," he said. "We should get some more in tomorrow, but I'm not sure."

Kate Bancroft, co-owner of Ula Cafe in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood, said the restaurant had stopped serving hot coffee, pulled out all the dishes that had been recently rinsed and put signs on the water faucets that read, "Don't drink me."

"We're following all of the rules," Bancroft said. "I just don't know how long this will last."