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Governor declares Boston water safe

Howard Manly

Ending a potential public health disaster, Gov. Deval Patrick declared on Tuesday that Boston’s water supply officially was safe for drinking and vowed an investigation into the causes of the massive pipe rupture.

“If there were a sink in here, I would take a glass from the tap and drink it myself,” Gov. Patrick said at a news conference at Massachusetts Water Resources Authority headquarters. “I’m very confident.”

An estimated 2 million people lost clean drinking water for about 72 hours after a 10-foot-diameter pipe ruptured Saturday in the system bringing water from central Massachusetts reservoirs east to Boston.

Patrick said a repair that could have taken weeks was accomplished within three days. The goal now, he said, was to determine how the break occurred and to prevent a recurrence.

“If there is fault to be found, we will find it and we will hold those responsible accountable,” Patrick said.

On Monday, President Obama approved federal reimbursement for as much as 75 percent of the cost of responding to the crisis, the amount of which has yet to be tallied.

Obama’s declaration authorizes the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief efforts with the state to help ease any hardships.

More than 800 tests showed the water in Boston and surrounding communities is now safe for drinking, authorities said.

“The people of Boston and surrounding communities can once again rely on the safety of their tap water for drinking,” Patrick said. “With a few simple steps, residents and businesses can now go back to normal water use, with full confidence.”

Residents are being urged to run their taps for a few minutes before drinking the water, and to run their dishwashers empty for one cycle before using them again.

Patrick also pledged a thorough review of the entire system, and to accelerate construction on a redundant water delivery system to help prevent another interruption of service.

Patrick had issued the order Saturday after a coupling on the 10-foot-wide pipe in suburban Weston failed. Crews raced to repair the pipe, and authorities had been waiting for the results of water quality tests before lifting the order.

Democratic House Speaker Robert DeLeo, whose hometown of Winthrop was under the boil water order, said he’s anxious to make sure that ratepayers aren’t left holding the repair bill.

Residents did their best to cope with the inconvenience, stocking up on bottled water and paper plates to avoid having to boil water to wash dishes. many area retailers, including Starbucks Corp and Dunkin Donuts, stopped serving coffee and offering only packaged beverages.

At Fenway Park, where the Red Sox beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 17-8 Monday night, water fountains were turned off and signs posted around the ballpark reminded fans of the order. The Red Sox brought in ice from Rhode Island for the clubhouse.

Concession stands were selling bottled soft drinks instead of fountain mixes, and beer service wasn’t affected.

The state drew on emergency water sources including ponds to keep taps flowing while the pipe was repaired, raising concerns that the tap water could harbor parasites including Giardia, which can cause intestinal illness.

Fred Laskey, executive director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, is confident the repair will hold. “That’s as solid as solid can be,’” he said of the repaired pipe, which has been reinforced by concrete.

The exact reason the coupling gave way remains under investigation. Officials have spent all their time and effort fixing the problem, Laskey said. “Why it blew out is something we’re going to work on,” he said.

Government officials welcomed impacted residents returning to work Monday, with Boston Mayor Tom Menino and the governor urging commuters to return to the capital city.

Menino also told consumers Sunday that restaurants were open “and serving delicious meals,” while the city’s school superintendent, Carol Johnson, spoke for her suburban colleagues when she told schoolchildren: “We expect to see you in class on time.”

Health officials warned of the risk of a parasite infection if residents used un-boiled tap water for brushing their teeth, washing raw vegetables or making ice. The water remained safe for showering and toilet flushing, with one official likening it to lake water.

Laskey didn’t shy from stating the magnitude of the problem created when the pipe burst at a seam Saturday morning. Over the next eight hours, an estimated 65 million gallons spilled into the Charles River and forced officials to tap a reservoir filled with untreated water, potentially contaminating the supply to 750,000 households.

“For the people in the water industry, it is everyone’s worst nightmare: to lose your main transmission line coming into a metropolitan area,” Laskey said.

Customers lined up at stores to buy bottled water, and both Patrick and Attorney General Martha Coakley warned against price-gouging.

Hongbin Luo of Lexington came upon a Stop and Shop that had just restocked its shelves. He wheeled out a shopping cart with two cases of water, plus 18 one-gallon bottles.

“We want to have something to use and send off with the kids to school,’” Luo said.

Fellow Lexington resident Ira Goldman said he had boiled water but added that he was going to Europe on Monday so “it’s not a big inconvenience.”

Boston’s water runs from the Quabbin Reservoir, in the central part of the state, to the Wachusett Reservoir before being treated at a plant in Marlborough. It travels through an 18-foot-wide pipe to suburban Weston, where it branches off into the 10-foot-wide pipe that broke.

When the breach occurred, the MWRA rerouted the clean water supply through an aqueduct that hadn’t been used in decades. It also briefly tapped a reservoir to maintain pressure and meet expected demand across the system. While the water in the aqueduct was clean, the water from the reservoir — which is in open air next to Boston College — is not, prompting the warning to boil water for one minute.

“It’s difficult to determine where that line (between clean and dirty water) is so, under the rules, you make the whole district a boil-only condition, even though we know and suspect that there are substantial portions that are getting purely treated water,” said Laskey.

Compiled from AP and other wire reports