Sewer Main Breaks Again Under Falmouth's Shining Sea Bikeway

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By: Brent Runyon
Published: 09/17/10

A town sewer main between Trunk River and Surf Drive ruptured for the third time in less than three years on Tuesday afternoon, leaking wastewater and prompting the closing of a section of the Shining Sea Bikeway and nearby beach until Wednesday afternoon.

Town employees worked overnight to excavate a 20-foot section of the bike path to find and repair the break. The work of repairing the pipe and re-paving the bike path was completed by Wednesday afternoon.

It was the third break in the same 1,000-foot section of force sewer main in the past three years, leading town officials to believe that the pipe there was improperly installed.

“This is the third break in the same area in the past three years. It’s more than just coincidence,” said Wastewater Superintendent Gerald C. Potamis. “At this point, we think it’s from poor installation.”

The 12-inch ductile iron pipe was installed in the 1980s and was supposed to be wrapped in heavy duty plastic, he said, but the section of pipe excavated Tuesday night did not have the poly wrap.

“It should have been wrapped, and it wasn’t wrapped,” he said.

If the pipe is to be replaced, costs are estimated to be in excess of $1 million, Mr. Potamis said.

Bike path users reported seeing a sewage-colored puddle on the path at 3:30 PM Tuesday. Town officials shut down the lift station in Woods Hole at 5:30 PM, and hired four private contractors to truck the sewage to the Shivericks Pond lift station, while the repair efforts were underway.

Mr. Potamis said approximately 2,000 gallons of sewage leaked through the four-inch hole in the pipe, a relatively small amount, because they caught it quickly.

“It appears to be a lot less than last time. There was no heavy smell and no sheen on the water,” Mr. Potamis said. “The last two times the breaks occurred were early in the morning, and it wasn’t reported until people started using the bike path later in the day.”

The town saved between $11,000 and $15,000 because the repair was completed by town workers, he said. The only outside cost was that of the truck drivers and the rental equipment for keeping the excavated trench from caving in, Mr. Potamis said.

Town Meeting members will decide this November whether to spend an estimated $1 million for the replacement of the section of pipe. The town wastewater department submitted four separate Town Meeting articles, asking for funds to maintain and repair the town’s wastewater system.

The project to replace the section of force sewer main is listed third on the Town Meeting warrant articles, but Mr. Potamis said, with this break, the project should be the top priority.

“We can’t afford to have breaks like this,” he said. “Imagine if this happened during Road Race weekend, or Fourth of July weekend.” He said because the town is relatively quiet right now it was easier to manage the spill.

All three sewer breaks have occurred within 1,000 feet of each other, Mr. Potamis said. A break in the line in December 2007 dumped more than 100,000 gallons of wastewater into the area. The second leak in June of 2009 leaked 20,000 gallons of sewage.

The force main runs from Woods Hole to another lift station behind Main Street, Falmouth, where it is pumped to the wastewater treatment plant on Blacksmith Shop Road.

The two leaks prompted Town Meeting members to appropriate funds to study the pipe’s integrity. Mr. Potamis said the test pits dug in April did not reveal any issues with the pipe.

“All the test pits that we dug, the force main was in really good shape,” he said. “I feel comfortable in saying that the rest of the force main looks pretty good.”

Although he suspects that the sewer main was not installed correctly, Mr. Potamis said that there will likely not be a lawsuit to recoup the costs of the installation.

It is also possible that the pipe was poorly manufactured, he said. The pipes were expected to last for more than 50 years, he said.

As for the future of the town’s wastewater management plans, which could cost an estimated $310 million in the coming years, Mr. Potamis said the three leaks in the existing sewer pipe in the past three years should help the town learn from its mistakes.

“You shouldn’t expect them to fail; we’ll take it as a lesson learned,” he said.

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