On Aug. 29, the city filed a lawsuit against Suez Water, the company that oversees the city’s water system. The city has dealt with water main breaks for many years, owing to the fact that some of the pipes are more than 100 years old. The recent series of breaks (15 in six weeks) flooded high-traffic areas including a corner near the Hoboken train station, shutting businesses temporarily.
For several weeks, Suez has been working in the southwest area of the city to install a new water meter and vault. Bhalla has said the city plans to investigate the cause of the breaks but said the recent breaks may be due to this construction.
The recent heat wave may also be a factor. Temperatures climbed to 95 degrees the day of the break near the train station.
Temperature and pressure fluctuations can cause breaks in the cast iron pipes.
The city has several projects underway to upgrade critical water mains, including the ongoing Washington Street Redesign project, which upgrades the water mains along the main business district, and a Water Asset Refurbishment Program, the first phase of which is scheduled to begin this fall.
Suez said last week that the city has averaged 111 breaks per year since 2001, and so far this year, Hoboken has had roughly 50.
Suez Water officials say the main reason for the breaks is the age of the infrastructure. They posted a photo on Twitter of an underground placard displaying the date 1897.
Suez did not return a call by press time to find out where that placard was found.
In a statement on their website, the company said, “More than 50 percent of Hoboken’s pipes were put in place in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They have far outlasted their usefulness.”
According to the city, the water system’s cast iron pipes become brittle as they age, making them more prone to breaks caused by pressure fluctuations, vibrations, or changes in temperature.
Mayor Bhalla questioned the work Suez has been doing near the city’s southern border, which has also tied up traffic.
“An experienced operator, knowing the state of our system, must use care while undertaking improvements such as the water meter vault, so as not to overstress the system,” Bhalla said. “Clearly, Suez, despite its depth of experience and intimate knowledge of our water system, did not do so in this instance.”
The city’s issues with the water system partially stem from a 1994 agreement between the city and United Water (now Suez). The city hoped to close a recurring budget gap by selling the rights to the water system to the company until 2024. The 30-year agreement was made in exchange for payments totaling $13.2 million for city budgets through 2001, to keep taxes from rising higher.
The city’s contract with Suez, criticized in later years by recent mayors, provides $350,000 a year for improvements, just enough for constant repairs.
According to a November 2017 report by construction engineering company CDM Smith on behalf of the city, this means that over the past 20 years, only 5 percent of the system has been upgraded.
The city has made some recent plans to upgrade the system.
As part of the $18 million Washington Street Redesign Project, the city is upgrading and replacing the water mains and infrastructure under Washington Street, a main thoroughfare through town.
In August 2016, the City Council unanimously voted to bond for $5.2 million for water main upgrades to combat the breaks. Then-Business Administrator Quentin Wiest presented the water asset refurbishment program at that August council meeting.
He said that an engineering firm, along with Suez, conducted an evaluation that identified 30 streets with 50 pipe segments that are the highest priority areas in need of refurbishment.
The total estimated cost to fix all those pipes was $14.6 million.
With that $5.2 million, nine areas are scheduled to be upgraded this fall.
According to city spokesperson Santiago Melli-Huber, the engineering plans are completed and have been submitted for review to NJEIT (now known as the New Jersey Infrastructure Bank).
Once the city receives the bank’s approval, the project will be bid out and construction will begin in the late fall.
“All of these are full main replacements, and any 6-inch mains will be upgraded to 8-inch mains to meet modern day standards,” said Melli-Huber.
The second phase is scheduled to begin next year, but according to Melli-Huber, “The exact locations for the second phase are still being determined, as we are coordinating construction projects with PSEG and our roadway resurfacing schedule.”
Hoboken’s Aug. 29 lawsuit against Suez aims to force the company to provide the city with all studies, reports, and plans on this southwest construction; any investigation as to the cause of the water main breaks; any claims of cost incurred for the water main breaks, and all records from this year of any pressure testing, hydrant flushing, or valve exercising.
The lawsuit also states that Suez must create a plan for determining the cause of the recurring water main breaks, to be reviewed and approved by the city.
Suez responded by stating, “This legal action is a waste of time, money and energy that could be better used for solving the real problem causing water main breaks in Hoboken – the age of the system and its pipelines…Over the many years of operating the water system, Suez has outlined a number of plans on how to proceed with a step-by-step approach to rebuilding the water system to provide a higher degree of reliability for the city’s homes and businesses. Our leadership, engineers and field crews stand ready to work with the administration and City Council to develop that path forward, install new technology and bring the water system into the 21st Century.”
Ready for a new contrac
Bhalla said that at the Sept. 5 meeting of the Hoboken City Council, his administration would seek the council’s approval to initiate the process of finding a new provider to operate the city’s water system.
“For several months the City Council, and my administration, have been working towards a new Request for Proposals to be released in hopes of finding an agreement and framework that works for the residents of Hoboken, not the bottom line of a private company,” said Bhalla. “Suez’s record speaks for itself and we no longer can work under an agreement that does not put Hoboken first.”
Marilyn Baer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.