By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — As underground water pipes continue to break in the city, experts are debating the causes.
The recent wide range of temperatures has been suggested — freezing and thawing of water mains and the soil around them.
The age of pipes is almost certain to be a factor, according to experts. They say it’s simple: The older the pipe, the more likely it is to spring a leak. Haverhill’s water system is among the oldest in the nation.
But could the earthquake that hit the region late last year be a reason for the breaks? It’s possible, said Robert Ward, director of the city’s water and sewer departments.
As Ward and his staff dealt with a broken water main yesterday near Northern Essex Community College, Haverhill’s third break in the last three days, he pondered something he heard about broken water pipes in other area communities, and that the earthquake is being eyed as a contributing factor.
“There has been talk that the earthquake in October may have had an effect on older pipes in the area, although I’m not aware of any research into that,” Ward said. “There are some people out there who are starting to think about that. But there’s not a lot you can do if the ground shifted, other than do some leak detection as one option.”
He said that when leaks are found, they can be repaired before they turn into major breaks.
“You can also test pipes and, if you find a section that is starting to weaken, you can schedule it for replacement before you have a catastrophic failure,” he said.
On Oct. 16 at 7:12 p.m., an earthquake hit southern Maine and rumbled through New England. The U.S. Geological Survey initially estimated the quake as having a magnitude of 4.6, but later downgraded it to 4.0. The epicenter, about 3 miles west of Hollis Center, Maine, was about 3 miles deep. That location is about 20 miles west of Portland. According to the Maine Department of Conservation, the earthquake was widely felt across central and southern New England from Bangor, Maine, to Hartford, Connecticut, with scattered reports as far as northern New Jersey and central New York State.
People in the Merrimack Valley and Southern New Hampshire said they felt the earthquake’s rumble.
While earthquakes are rare in New England, they’re not unheard of, according to the Associated Press. In 2006 there was a series of earthquakes around Maine’s Acadia National Park, including one with a magnitude of 4.2 that caused boulders to fall from ledges onto the park’s loop road. One of the park’s trails was closed for three years because of damage from the quake.
Yesterday, just two days after the city experienced water main breaks in three different neighborhoods, Northern Essex Community College announced it was closing due to a break in a water main that serves the campus. The Haverhill campus is expected to reopen today at noon.
Ward said his department was notified of the break at 2:20 p.m. yesterday. He said a work crew was sent to the campus to shut down the line so that repairs could begin. The break occurred in an 8-inch water line that is beneath the basketball court at the rear of the campus, he said. Repairs were expected to be completed by 11 p.m. last night, he said.
On Sunday, three water mains in the city sprang leaks within a short period of time, causing Ward to scramble work crews and call in additional help and equipment. He said the leaks on Sunday were likely the result of recent temperature fluctuations causing expansion and contraction of soil and pipes. The leaks baffled Ward, who said he could not recall so many leaks happening in such a short period of time.
At 5 a.m. Sunday, city workers were alerted to water bubbling through the ground on Groveland Street in the area of Crowell Street, a few blocks east of Merrimack Valley Hospital. Ward said a broken 8-inch pipe was repaired and back-filled by 11 a.m. About 50,000 gallons of water were lost, he said.
Workers were still at the Groveland Street site at 9 a.m. when the city was notified of another water main break at an apartment complex at 440 North Ave. Minutes later, the city was notified of another break on Boardman Street. Ward had to call in additional Water Department workers, while the Highway Department sent workers and a back hoe. Ward said a 6-inch main that was leaking at the 440 North Ave. apartment complex resulted in 21 units in the complex experiencing low or no water pressure for about three hours. About 12,000 gallons of water were lost. Workers completed repairs and back-filling by 6 p.m.
Minutes after the leak was reported at 440 North Ave., a large 12-inch water main in the area of 234-240 Boardman St. ruptured, causing water to bubble up through the road surface and flow to Groveland Street and Water Street below. Ward said the leak affected about 100 customers in that area and resulted in the loss of an estimated 216,000 gallons of water. Repairs and backfilling were completed by 9 p.m.
Ward said water and highway department workers have done a good job repairing the leaks.
“I appreciate the work they do,’’ he said. “They’re out there at all hours in the cold weather taking care of these problems.’’