LAWRENCE — Six months after a fire destroyed three Hancock Street homes while firefighters scrambled for water from hydrants running on vapors, the City Council last night voted to borrow $23.8 million to clear the rust from 130 miles of underground water pipes that have not been cleaned in as long as 75 years.
The councilors voted 7-0 to borrow the money from the state, after fire Chief Jack Bergeron warned that restoring the flow through the pipes is vital to fighting fires in a city known for its conflagrations. The vote also came after water and sewer chief Robert Fazio said the loan can be repaid without raising rates.
Fazio said he can pay for the upgrade using a surplus in his budget that is expected to grow to $9 million and the savings from new efficiencies in the water system which have cut costs by $2.3 million a year. Water and sewer rates have not been raised since 2009 and are projected to remain flat through 2019.
“There’s nothing as frustrating as realizing when you tie into a hydrant that you don’t have the water available and the fire is burning out of control,” Bergeron told the council, referring to the Hancock Street fire in April and a 2008 fire that burned through a block of Parker Street.
In another 7-0 vote, the council agreed to borrow $1.9 million more to develop a plan for removing storm water that is infiltrating sewage collection pipes, adding to the cost of treating the waste water and causing the city to release untreated sewage into the Merrimack River during heavy rains. Earlier upgrades have allowed the city to cut off the inflow, so that it now accounts for 17 percent of what it delivers to the regional treatment plant in North Andover — down from 30 percent in 2008, acting Public Works Director John Isensee told the council.
Councilor Marc Laplante abstained from both votes and Councilor Eileen Bernal was absent.
The improvements will come on top of $15.8 million worth of upgrades to the water distribution system that the council approved last year, which among other things is paying to replace meters in homes and businesses that will be read remotely by antennas on two water towers.
In all, the three water and sewer projects will cost $41.5 million, all but about $2 million of it paid for with 2 percent, 20-year loans from state pools of money set aside to help communities improve water and sewage systems across Massachusetts. The program is targeted at systems that discharge waste water to the Merrimack and Connecticut rivers, Boston Harbor and Buzzards Bay. The federal government contributes to the program.
The state Department of Environmental Protection provided the loans, after ranking requests from the localities according to their urgency. Lawrence’s request for the $23.8 million to clear out the rust in its water mains ranked it second of the 24 communities that will receive funding this year, behind Bellingham’s application for a $15.3 million loan to build new water treatment plants.
Some of the work already has begun. Lawrence this year cleared about 2,700 feet of water pipes under Park Street, where rust reduced the opening in some eight-inch pipes to pinholes. Clearing the iron pipes – installed in 1873 — increased the flow to the street’s fire hydrants from 459 gallons a minute to more than 2,700, Bergeron said.
Lawrence’s application for the loan got a competitive boost from an “environmental justice” component of the state loan program that gives extra consideration to communities with average household incomes 65 percent below the state average. Because of its poverty, up to 10 percent of what the city borrows will be forgiven by the state.
Besides repairing or replacing the water pipes, the project includes repairing valves and hydrants.
Except when leaks erupt, the city’s water pipes have been largely neglected since they were installed as the city was developed between 1873 and 1890, Isensee said.
“The water lines have not been cleared in a meaningful way in 75 years,” he said. “Since then, maintenance has focused on downtown, so (pipes serving) a lot of the neighborhoods have never been cleared.”
“It’s been running like a ‘57 Buick Roadmaster,” Fazio said about the water treatment and distribution system. “Eight miles to the gallon.”
The cleared water lines are not expected to improve water quality, which already is high, Fazio said. The city draws its water from the Merrimack River. It built a new water treatment plant in 2007.
“The water is safe,” Fazio said. “We meet all drinking water standards. What we do need is fire safety.”