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City breaks ground on water plant

Douglas Hadden

PAWTUCKET -- With turns of their ceremonial shovels, a long line of smiling officials chucked several spades of dirt Tuesday to mark groundbreaking for the city’s new $45 million water treatment plant.

The occasion was marked by short speeches, a long list of thank-you’s and a catered clambake under a tent -- paid for by the project’s vendor, Earth Tech -- outside Pawtucket Water Supply Board headquarters on Branch Street, behind which the new 35,000-square-foot plant will be built.

The contract calls for cutting the ribbon on the new plant, able to process 25 million gallons a day, in mid-March 2006.

It will replace the antiquated facility a half-mile north in Cumberland, which has required expensive Band-Aid repairs and was judged unable to meet accelerating federal water quality standards.

It remains to be seen whether the project start will also mark the burying of the hatchet between Mayor James E. Doyle, who favored the Pawtucket Water Supply Board’s choice of Earth Tech, and the City Council, most of whom had backed rival vendor USFilter.

Doyle and Council President John Barry did not shy away from gentle mentions of the controversy, which took a court decision to settle, delayed the project two years and added several hundred thousand dollars to the cost.

The long series of delays also apparently left Pamela Marchand, PWSB chief engineer and general manager, with a healthy case of have-to-see-it-to- believe-it.

"When the ribbon-cutting ceremony comes," she smiled, "I’ll really be jumping for joy." Marchand noted members of the council "disagreed with us at times but did come through with the financing (approval)."

Her long list of thank-you’s also included, among others CDM Engineering, city staff from permitting to zoning, financial and legal advisors, labor representatives, the Pawtucket Building Authority, Senators Lincoln Chafee and Sen. Jack Reed, and even "the newspaper people, who have been involved from the beginning," keeping the public informed.

Doyle joked the shovels were made of rubber so any political adversaries would "not go at each other." Doyle recalled that the old plant was started while Thomas McCoy was mayor, when a great hurricane hit the state, in the year of Doyle’s birth -- 1938.

Doyle said since becoming mayor, "the most frustrating thing that ever came across my desk," and the toughest to fix, "was the water problem."

But he noted that besides the new treatment plant, the 10-year project to clean and line old pipes will give users the benefit of a "state of the art" water system, "managed by one of the leading companies in the industry."

Barry joked Dole had kept a pledge by revealing his advanced years: "The City Council said we wouldn’t go along with this deal until (Doyle) admitted he was present at the first groundbreaking."

Barry said the council’s chief concern was insuring quality water, a process that necessarily took a long time, "and we look forward to the ribbon-cutting as the mayor does."

Earth Tech is now responsible for the existing facility and will design, build and operate the new privatized plant under a 20-year agreement. At its peak, the project will employ about 250 workers.

PWSB Chairwoman Mary Tetzner said, "When this process began, we never expected it would take five years to put a shovel in the ground," but she was pleased with the "partnership" with Earth Tech.

An agreement in the privatization move governing former PWSB workers now employed by Earth Tech, which is based in Long Beach, Calif., is now being hammered out. "We’re moving along. They recognize the union and they’re negotiating in good faith," said union official Joseph Peckham of Council 94 AFSCME.

City permits have already been issued for the plant’s construction; only one state Department of Health approval remains for the full go-ahead. Earth Tech is also installing a back-access fire road and three hydrants, as sought by the Fire Department, at its own cost.

Ceremony over, the gathering settled down to a feast catered by B&M Clambake Co., of Pawtucket, of grilled steak and chicken, shrimp, chowder, clam cakes and watermelon, at a cost to Earth Tech of about $10,000.