AYER -- At a recent meeting of selectmen, Ayer DPW Superintendent Mark Wetzel read a portion of a thank-you letter to his department from Nashoba Valley Medical Center's Facilities Director Larry Williams.

In the letter, Williams specifically recognizes and applauds DPW Water Department Foreman Rick Linde for his assistance during a July 11 water main leak at the hospital.

According to Wetzel, during the week of July 8, Nashoba Valley Medical Center's contractor, Suffolk Construction, was performing pressure testing on a "wet tap" to connect a new pipe to its existing water main when the leak occurred.

A wet tap is a means of connecting a new pipe without an interruption of service. In this case, one pipe was connected to the Apple Valley Rehabilitation Center, and the other to the hospital.

"They were connecting the service from Apple Valley to the hospital and were going to get rid of the pipe to the hospital," Wetzel explained.

To connect the service between the two buildings, a tapping sleeve was installed around the pipe to be tapped, and a valve connected to the tapping sleeve to shut off the old main.

Wetzel said that Suffolk Construction did not contact the DPW until just before they started doing the wet tap on July 8, at which point they asked the DPW "to come and check it out."

At that point the DPW informed the company that it needed to fill out the proper permits and that the DPW needed to inspect the job.

As it turned out, said Wetzel, the materials being used by the construction company were not the preferred materials that the DPW would require, and "were not our standards, which is why (the tap) failed."

It was during the pressure testing, he said, that "they sprang a leak and the pipe had to be shut down."

Water Department intervention

"Anything they do to our system, we have to observe it, and (Linde) was there and witnessed the leak," Wetzel said.

Linde immediately called Wetzel, and ended up having to get some repair parts and direct the subcontractor, as the construction foreman did not have everything the company needed to make the necessary repairs.

Wetzel later explained one of the reasons that it is important for subcontractors to acquire the proper permits or approvals from the DPW prior to starting such a construction project.

"We need to give them a trench permit, and when they submit for the trench permit that is when I would say, 'Wait a minute, you need to use the required materials,' and 'wait a minute before you do this, let's make sure you have done this, this and this.'

"As an engineer, before I did anything that could affect the water supply to the hospital, I would make sure I had plan A and B in place. Apparently, their plan B didn't work."

In hindsight, he said, he probably should have stopped the whole project, but instead he simply asked them to be sure to get the proper permits. He will be sending a bill for the approximately six hours Linde worked to help them to resolve the immediate problem.

Response from Steward Healthcare

Both Williams and Suffolk Construction Marketing Director Daniel Antonellis deferred questions about the missing permits to Steward Health Care Director of Media Relations Christopher Murphy.

Steward Health Care, the parent company of Caritas Christi Health Care, purchased Nashoba Valley Medical Center in May 2011.

Murphy denied that the construction company caused the leak or that Suffolk did not have the proper permits in place prior to the start of the job.

"All the permits were in place," he said. "I don't know if the water company is aware of every permit. There is a requirement to get certain permits, and Suffolk had all their permits."

He said it was his understanding that the leak did not occur due to the work being done by Suffolk Construction Company, but in fact occurred during the line test being done by the Ayer Water Department.

Wetzel rebutted Murphy's account.

"In order to work on our water system, the construction company has to have a license from us, that's number one. Number two is that for any license to install any water and sewer, they have to have a permit from us and, depending on the contractor, we may or may not issue a permit. We may waive a bond, but they definitely have to have a permit.

"The day that (the contractor) starts the work, he needs to have the trench permit and the water installers' license," said Wetzel.

Wetzel said Suffolk did not pick up the necessary paperwork until the very morning they started doing the work.

He said the trench permit for the hospital was submitted on July 8. He was away the following day, and signed it on the 11th, the same day the leak occurred.

"We got some of (the paperwork) back in a fax on the 10th. They had done the wet tap on the 8th. But I had not signed it."

Assigning responsibility

Wetzel explained that when he received the paperwork for the trench permit, the person in charge of safety on the site was not the person who had signed it, so he personally visited the site to locate the responsible person and have him sign it.

He said it is the specialty company hired by Suffolk who was responsible for the line testing.

"That has nothing to do with us, other than we observe it to make sure the testing is done properly," he said.

"We witness it but we are not responsible for the work. We just make sure they meet the testing requirements. They pump it up to a certain pressure and it has to hold water for a certain period of time. And that is when the leak occurred.

"It happened instantaneously at the site of the wet tap," he said.

Water contamination

Wetzel added that the water department did the water testing after the leak. The results revealed that there were indicator organisms known as "total coliform" in the drinking water,

The DPW then contacted the Department of Environmental Protection, which confirmed that the breach was an "isolated incident" to that location.

Total coliform, a collection of different kinds of bacteria that are generally harmless, are natural and common inhabitants of soil and surface waters. Their presence in drinking water suggests that there has been a breach or other change in the integrity of the water system, and that pathogens may have entered into the water.

Wetzel said the water department notified the hospital about the contamination based on EPA and DEP requirements.

Both Murphy and Wetzel stated that no fecal coliform or E. coli was found.

Out of an abundance of caution, however, bottled water was brought into the hospital for cooking and consumption, Murphy said.

"The water line was fixed in four hours and the lines were flushed immediately with chlorine to flush the contamination," he stated, adding that the water was also retested.

Thanks to the Ayer DPW

Williams' email to Wetzel, a portion of which Wetzel read at the July 16 selectmen's meeting, tells Wetzel how impressed Williams was with Linde in his interactions with the hospital during the event.

"I had not met Mr. Linde until last week, prior to the water main event," he said." When we first met I was really surprised at the attention to detail Richard provided. He took the time to explain how wet taps work and his role in the public works."

Williams went on to say that on the day of the event, he "couldn't have asked for a better response from your staff. The contractor has some materials to make the repair, but did not have others. Richard provided those and enabled the repair to take place in record time.

"He was instrumental in oversight of the repair even though he was not making said repair."

Reading from the email, Wetzel concluded, "Please pass on my thanks to your staff for taking care of our community hospital."

The selectmen applauded Linde's and the DPW's efforts.