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.