On Tuesday, 2 May, the Cambridge Water Board held a meeting about a pipe replacement project.
The discussion focused on the use of Cured In Place Pipes (CIPP) as an alternative for digging up old and decaying cast iron pipes and replacing them with new pipes. The CIPP process uses some sort of plastic-type stuff (apparently there are a few different options) that is pushed through existing pipes to create, essentially, an internal liner that functions as a new pipe. This type of replacement avoids a lot of the construction challenges and costs associated with traditional pipe work. The alternative is to dig up the old pipes, some of which are something like 120 years old, and replace them with new ones. Anyone who’s been down Huron Ave recently has some idea of what that sort of project can be like.
The problem is, and it’s a really big problem, is that these pipe liners leech chemicals into the water and there are no good studies about how much of what type of chemicals leeches into water with various levels of pH or chlorine or what those various chemicals might do or how they might mix over time. Even a really good study from, say, NYC, might be completely irrelevant to Cambridge because our levels of chlorine, pH, minerals or anything else could be very different from that in NYC. Really, there is nothing that clearly shows how pipe liners impact human or environmental health and under what conditions those impacts happen. History is full of examples where we’ve put a bunch of stuff into the environment that has had unexpected and unhealthy impacts on nature and people. I do not know why we would want to take that risk with our City’s drinking water. There is some thought about just doing the big pipes to the reservoir in Belmont but, absent some science saying there is no danger, that is also a scary prospect. And I doubt the EPA is going to help much in the public health side of things for a while, so we’re left with pretty spotty industrial and academic research in this area.
It wasn’t clear how the CIPP process might impact our sewerage pipes. I imagine we’d have to clear that through the MWRA for that.
Another missing piece in the discussion is how much the various pipe options, or combination of options, would cost. While our overall water/sewer rates have gone up, that’s been because the MWRA ups its assessment. Our water rates have stayed flat. Because the Water Department pays for itself out of the water rates, the cost of whatever pipe project is picked would be reflected in the rates so those might go up dependent on how expensive the pipe replacement projects are. My guess is that we’d all rather pay a lot more in our water rates than to have chemicals with unknown health effects introduced into our drinking water but I think people have a right to be told an anticipated price tag.
So, the Water Department is going to study the issue and come back with some suggestions and more information. Nothing is going to happen for a few years, at the least, but sometimes projects have a way of gathering their own momentum so it’s always good to pay attention. As its own body, the Water Department, overseen by the Water Board, has a lot of leeway in what it does but it is the Council that approves the final water rates so there are some direct checks and balances in the process.
On a related note, Owen O’Riordan, our DPW chief, sent me a link to a very interesting NYT article on street construction. With over 200 years of history and all sorts of services buried out of sight, designing, coordinating and managing these projects can be very challenging. Check out: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016…