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    Plum Island project draws ire

    City also plans legal action against firm

    The north end of Plum Island is in Newburyport, where a water/sewer project is the focus of a state investigation.
    Mark Wilson/Globe Staff/File 2004
    The north end of Plum Island is in Newburyport, where a water/sewer project is the focus of a state investigation.

    It took several years to connect Plum Island to Newburyport’s municipal water and sewer system, a $22.9 million project that was plagued by cost overruns, mismanagement, equipment failures, and opposition from property owners.

    Now — as island homeowners continue to battle erosion from waves of winter storms — the water-sewer project is the focus of a state civil investigation, according to city and state officials. Newburyport officials also are preparing to file litigation against the group of contractors that put down miles of water and sewer pipes, nearly 200 fire hydrants, and a high-tech va-cuum-sealed sewer system that experienced problems less than a year after it was installed.

    Mayor Donna Holaday said the city’s investigation, outlined in a yet-to-be-released report by city engineers, found at least 147 hydrants in various stages of corrosion with an estimated 18,000 weakened bolts. Other problems were found with the AirVac sewer system and deteriorating water main connections.


    “There’s quite a long list of problems that need to be fixed,” Holaday said. “We are hoping that we can come to some sort of agreement with the contractors so we can resolve these problems quickly and at no expense to the taxpayers.”

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    The attorney general’s office is conducting its own investigation of the project, which received state funding through the Department of Environmental Protection. A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office declined to comment on the investigation but said the agency is working with the city and others to resolve the matter.

    “Our office remains actively engaged in discussions with all parties involved to reach a resolution that fully addresses problems with the system,” spokeswoman Jillian Fennimore said.

    In a written statement, Cambridge-based CDM Smith, the lead contractor and engineer for the project, said it became aware of the problems in November 2011 and has been working with Newburyport officials to resolve the issues.

    “Because of our immediate and ongoing efforts to resolve the water system issues and our commitment to a final resolution, there is no need for litigation,” the company said. “If Newburyport and Newbury were to file a suit, however, we would defend it vigorously.”


    The company said it designed a “state-of-the-art” water and sewer system that has provided “excellent service” but pointed out that installing a system for a barrier island “presents unique challenges” and the company has a plan for improvements and repairs.

    Problems with the project surfaced shortly after construction was completed in the fall of 2007,but city officials said they did not realize just how bad things were until a series of water main breaks beginning in the spring of 2011 raised concerns about the integrity of the system. The city enlisted the Boston law firm of Rubin & Rudman LLP to help with the investigation and hired consulting firms to test the pipe connections down to the bolts.

    “The system had only been in the ground about five years, so we knew there was something seriously wrong,” Holaday said. “But we had no idea just how bad.”

    Holaday met two weeks ago in executive session with Newburyport City Council members, who were briefed on the city’s legal strategy. Council members declined to say what was discussed, but several said they support the mayor’s push for legal action.

    “We’re behind the mayor and want to see her explore all options,” Councilor Robert Cronin said. “We are going to do everything we can to resolve it.”


    Cronin said the city has repaired a number of the hydrants and said the system is functioning, but he shared the concerns of other city officials that the problems need to be fixed quickly and without asking taxpayers to help cover the costs.

    Newburyport leaders have been criticized for not releasing information about the water and sewer system problems. Holaday said she understands the frustration but has been prevented from talking about the issue publicly because of the potential for a lawsuit.

    The water and sewer project broke ground in the fall of 2004 and took nearly three years to complete. Even then, it took several more years to get all of the island’s residents hooked up to the new system, with some fighting the move in court.

    The project was plagued by glitches and other setbacks.

    For one, Newbury, Newburyport, and the excavating contractor hired by CDM Smith were fined $45,000 collectively by the Mass. Department of Environmental Protection in 2005 after the contractor dumped contaminated sand onto a local beach. Although most of Plum Island’s 1,200 homes are situated in the town of Newbury, Newburyport operates the water and sewer systems for both communities.

    In addition, the wrong type of gaskets on connections were installed by another subcontractor for nearly 2 miles of water main pipes. Then an undetected rock ledge forced workers to reroute pipes, adding nearly $90,000 to the cost.

    The new sewer system had problems less than a year after it was installed, with valves that control the flow of sewage from underground tanks to the city’s treatment plant freezing, lowering the pressure in the pipes.

    Holaday said the city’s Department of Public Works managed to temporarily fix the problem by insulating the sewer valves, but she said the city expended money and manpower on something that should have been resolved by the contractor.

    Many Plum Island residents resisted hooking up to the centralized system. Property owners, who previously relied on wells and septic systems, were assessed for a big chunk of the upgrades, an average levy of $17,000 per household over 20 to 30 years at a rate of 2 to 2.65 percent interest.

    Many also had to pay for plumbing upgrades inside their homes. That has fueled criticism of the project from residents who argue that they should get a refund because of the equipment failures.

    Christian M. Wade can be reached at cmwade1969