Friday, May 21, 2010

Love that Dirty Water

“Attention all people living in Boston. Do not drink the water! I repeat do not drink the water!” This brief and redundant warning was the primary means of getting a hold of the people of Boston and its surrounding areas over the weekend of the Aquapocalypse. Masses of policemen rode up and down the streets gripping their bullhorns, frantically shouting, placing particular emphasis on the 'watah' with their Boston accents. On May 1, a 10 foot wide pipe broke in Weston, Massachusetts around 10:30 a.m. leaving over 30 communities* without safe drinking water.

Although the pipe is now repaired, thousands of people went without water for two days. There were extreme safety precautions taken just to carry out daily routines of brushing teeth, bathing, washing hands, and doing the dishes. Water had to be boiled for 60 seconds before it could be used. Workers of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) reported the backup filter water was “essentially untreated pond or lake water.” Most of the chaos came from communities that were raiding local supermarkets for bottled water and panicking over the deprivation of coffee. K.C., a UMass Boston student and employee of BJ’s in Revere, explained: “The store was crazy that weekend. Bottled water was literally flying off the shelves. I was answering phones at the service desk and I was petrified to pick up the phone and tell another person ‘No ma’am, no sir, we do not have any water here.’ The phone would not stop ringing and we had no more water. Policemen were at our store because families were fighting over Poland Spring. I was thinking, ‘Hello! It’s not that bad people, just boil water.’” The pipe break was so serious President Barack Obama signed an emergency declaration coordinating disaster relief efforts from the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management. Governor Deval Patrick declared a state of emergency. Who is to blame for the pipe break and pandemonium?

The confusing explanations of how the Boston Water System is set up are distracting readers from the issue. The water is primarily stored in Quabbin Reservoir; it is filtered through the Marlborough plant. The pipes extend to Weston, where the water flows. The MWRA knows what happened and what the cause was, but why it happened is still questionable. A one ton metal collar that joins the pipes broke off as water burst from every angle and drained into the Charles River. Fred Laskey, executive director of the MWRA, explained: “The pipe was only seven years old. It could be a design flaw, construction flaw, faulty products, or something in our system.” When the pipe burst, large rubber gaskets which attach the collar and pipe were floating above the leak. After a thorough investigation, police and water workers still could not find the metal collars, only the rubber gaskets which got wrapped around a telephone pole. The gaskets are going to help supposedly explain why the pipe break started by examining the size, strength, and product itself.

That first weekend in May caused fighting and bickering. Peddlers were overcharging bottled water, but this was kept under control because of Attorney General Martha Coakley. P.P., an Allston resident, describes how she saw an older man selling cases of water out of the trunk a Jeep: “I could not believe it. My friends and I were driving home from grocery shopping, and this guy was just standing there taking money from people. Five bucks for a measly Poland Spring bottle! I don’t think he was around for very long. I saw a police car drive towards us. How ridiculous people are to even try doing that in a state of emergency.” Coakley managed to prevent most of these types of unfair transactions from happening: “Businesses and individuals cannot and should not take advantage of this public emergency to unfairly charge consumers . . . for water.” She also set up a hotline and website where people could file complaints if they felt they were being cheated money for water: or 617-727-8400.

Meanwhile, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts had their own nutcases to deal with during the water crisis concerning coffee. An employee of Starbucks in Boston said, “People were rude. I understand you don’t have coffee, but I can’t control that. If you want coffee, I’ll let you jump behind the counter and make it, but I can guarantee you that you will get sick. We just sold food. Who knew lack of water could make people so crazy? I was so happy when we finally got water back, so I could serve people their coffee, and get them the heck out of my store.” As baristas were combating with super clients, Cambridge sat pretty as they enjoyed clean, non-toxic, non-parasitic showers, and sipped coffee freely. Cambridge, Massachusetts has its own water supply that is not run by MWRA. The water is acquired from Hobbs Brook (located in Lincoln and Waltham), Stony Brook (Weston), and Fresh Pond (Cambridge). Water is filtered at Fresh Pond then pumped through the Payson Park Reservoir (Belmont) and reallocated down to each person.

Another location that was able to receive clean water was the Longwood Medical Area. Water authority spokeswoman Ria Convery said, “The authority, working with the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, was able to reconfigure the water pipe lines.” The Longwood Medical Area consists of four major hospitals: Children’s Hospital, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Each place was able to go about their usual routine without worrying about contamination or relying on water bottles to treat their patients. Unfortunately, not all hospitals were lucky. Tufts Medical Center in Boston was one of several hospitals who had to deal with the polluted water. They had to use bottled water for the patients and to replenish cooking water. There were warning signs placed all over water fountains and bathrooms. Leigh Lucas Geary, a spokeswoman from Tufts, said that no surgeries or medical services were seriously affected. This hospital, and many others, managed to work under the sudden conditions without fear.

Many people living in or around Boston explained that the pipe break was not the end of the world. J.G. said, “I go to school and I work. I used water bottles. Yes, it’s terrible what happened with the pipes, but there are countries that have a far worse situation where they will never get clean water. It’s not a big deal, just boil some water.” Another UMass student, R.L., explained, “I agree with her. This is nonsense. People were pacing back and forth at my office because they could not handle not having a pot of coffee. Really? It could be worse. My family and I are dealing with it by taking the precautions and just using our brains.”

Local schools remained open during the pipe break, just making sure that there were signs everywhere informing the faculty and students of the contaminated water. Many schools shut off or taped over water fountains to be sure no one tried taking a drink. Purell stations were everywhere from the bathrooms to the cafeterias. Many school districts like Arlington, Somerville, and Brookline sent out notices to parents and staff, asking them to donate wipes and bottled water. Extra precautions were taken in the lunchroom, too: Arlington removed fruits and vegetables and salad bars from the menus, instead preparing a menu that did not rely on water. “The key things are the food service,” said Medford Superintendent Roy Belson. “We have prepared a menu that does not require water.” Other locations switched from dishes to disposable at risk of washing in tainted water. Did schools have to adjust their agenda and preparations? Yes, but they managed to survive.

We can all make similar alterations, but it is important to deal with the situation and not freak out about coffee or taking twenty minute showers. Instead, we should be focused on learning why a seven year old pipe broke in the first place. In fact, after forcing all these people to boil water all weekend, the water turned out to be just fine. A lot of people were pissed off. Boston resident B.N. said, “I could not believe I had to spend my weekend gargling with my water bottle and boiling grimy water to make food. I have a few choice words for the city: screw you people.” On May 2, hundreds of water samples were taken from some of the ponds; the water turned out to be clean and no different than any other day.

According to the MWRA and The Boston Globe, “just 4 of 820 samples taken from throughout the affected area contained any potentially harmful bacteria.” Robert Keough, spokesman for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, added: “This was a precaution. We didn’t know what the quality of the water was going to be like.” Although these officials were trying to be careful, perhaps running tests immediately after the break would have been a wiser option. The sooner the results came in, the easier the maintenance would have been for communities who were scurrying around and scrounging up all the available water bottles. Even if the State House and MWRA could not figure out why the metal collar busted, they should have stopped and used some common sense to prevent some of the unnecessary chaos from occurring. After all, the water was drinkable all along: how about passing me some of that dirty water?

Additional information regarding the pipe break can be found at:

*Lists of cities included in boil-order:
Allston, Arlington, Belmont, Boston, Brookline, Canton, Chelsea, Everett, Hanscom, Lexington, Lynnfield, Malden, Marblehead, Medford, Melrose, Milton, Nahant, Newton, Norwood, Quincy, Reading, Revere, Saugus, Somerville, Stoneham, Swampscott, Waltham, Watertown, Winchester, and Winthrop.

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