Mayor asks for new vote on water plant contract
will it be USFilter or Earth Tech?
Blunt critique of each contender

Douglas Hadden
April 08, 2003
PAWTUCKET -- In the wake of an independent report showing the city’s water treatment plant in dire risk of failing, Mayor James E. Doyle is asking that the City Council reconsider a vote last November that shot down funding for a proposed vendor contract to build a new facility.
Relatedly, the Pawtucket Public Building Authority, which legally owns the 1938 plant on Mill Street in Cumberland and leases it to the Pawtucket Water Supply Board, voted 4-1 Monday to allocate $500,000 for emergency plant repairs.

The Water Board is expected to hold a go-ahead vote on the repairs, to be overseen by engineering firm Camp, Dresser & McKee, at a meeting tonight.

CDM officials said Monday the repairs could be completed by the end of June, before the peak demand summer season gets in full swing. With an add-on system to draw from wells plus a new feeder pipe, plant capacity would be limited to 15 million gallons a day, well below current capacity.

The work is chiefly to install a new 30-inch-diameter pipe to bypass the badly corroded 48-incher that is now the sole feeder of water from the Happy Hollow reservoir into the treatment plant.

The old pipe’s walls, according to a $15,000 independent report by C&E Engineering of Woonsocket performed at the direction of the state Public Utilities Commission, is less than 1/16 inches thick in places.

According to the report, failure of the feeder pipe, which operates under pressure of 80 to 100 pounds per square inch, would prevent water from reaching the treatment area and flood the control building’s electrical and pumping systems. With access restricted to a single set of stairs, "anyone in these lower levels during a catastrophic failure of this pipeline could face serious injury or death."

City Councilor Chip Hoyas, after reading newspaper accounts of the study, called it "a scary report. We had not seen anything like that that was impartial."

The PBA, planned to phase out when the plant is privatized, has about $900,000 left in its kitty though it was slotted to improve the vexed system’s pipes.

Doyle’s appeal came in a meeting in the mayor’s office with a special council panel that has been reviewing the vendor flap that has halted a new plant for more than 14 months.

Doyle told the special panel -- Councilors Mary Bray, Robert Carr and Hoyas -- that a solution needed to be found without further action by the PUC or other outside authorities.

"I just feel very, very strongly that this problem that exists should be solved on the local level," Doyle said. "Just to have this placed in their (PUC’s) hands and have them make the final decision is just a slap in the face of Pawtucket ..if it should come to that."

"The plant is in such a deteriorated condition," said Pamela Marchand, PWSB chief engineer and general manager, "that there are a number of things that could go wrong" and take out part or all of the facility in a chain reaction.

"I am asking you today," Doyle told the councilors, "to go back to the body (full council) and I’m going to request it for the purpose that you take a vote to rescind your previous vote," and approve the firm Earth Tech to design, build and operate the 25 million gallons per day plant, now pegged at about $44 million.

Given open meetings rules and councilors’ personal schedules, the earliest the full council could take up the issue would be at its April 23 meeting.

After the Water Board recommended Earth Tech, the council a year ago January voted instead to hire rival vendor USFilter. The issue landed in Superior Court, where a judge in November ruled the council had authority to approve funding but not pick the vendor. The council subsequently voted 7-2 against funding a contract with Earth Tech.

Differing reports of Earth Tech’s experience in other communities have marked the special panel’s inquiries with Doyle.

Officials in Gardner, Mass., where Earth Tech built a 3 million gallons per day facility, said it hadn’t delivered an adequate supply of clean water though a filter membrane the city wanted added has been chiefly blamed. But Marchand said Earth Tech had swallowed the millions of dollars in fixup charges and the plant is now functioning as it should.

"I just found it difficult to see what anyone (else) could have done better," given the alleged problems with the subcontractor’s product, Marchand said.

The mayor of Glens Falls, N.Y. was also critical of Earth Tech’s performance, Bray found in a phone inquiry, which Doyle said he later confirmed while noting the firm was still working there, getting an overall "C-plus" grade from the mayor.

In other written evaluations given to the panel Monday:

-- A water quality engineer with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection wrote that "my experience with Earth Tech has been a positive one," in both Gardner and Fitchburg, where the company "even helped the city to optimize plant performance after startup" of its 12 million gallons per day plant, which the city itself (unlike what’s proposed here) will operate.

-- Newport’s Public Works chief, Julia Forgue, said Earth Tech completed it work on the wastewater plant there "on schedule" and its overall performance "has been excellent," including its daily on-site manager.

Dissenting in the 4-1 PBA vote was Chairman James Murray. "It’s not us who are playing the silly games about what vendor. It’s the city council and administration." Murray also said later, "it’s not our job to do ordinary maintenance of the system. Our money should go into the ground, cleaning and lining pipes."

But "we had to" approve the funding, said board member Leslie Gernt, apparently convinced by arguments by experts including CDM engineering officials Patrick Hughes and Jack Keaney.

The motion approved by the PBA capped its funding help at $500,000, which engineers estimate the repair will cost.

As to what will be done with the new pipe when a new plant is built two or three years from now, PWSB water quality supervisor Allen Champagne said it will have no holdover nor backup value. "Scrap," he called its subsequent use.

But if the current pipe should fail and flood, "it’s well over half a million dollars to get the plant up and running again," he said.