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Leaks still plague tunnel

State analysis contradicts officials' claim

Lanes were closed in the O'Neill Tunnel after a water main break above ground caused icy conditions in January. Lanes were closed in the O'Neill Tunnel after a water main break above ground caused icy conditions in January. (WENDY MAEDA/GLOBE STAFF/file)

Water is still leaking steadily into the Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. Tunnel with no signs of abating and continued uncertainty about where it is all coming from, according to a new state analysis, which flatly contradicts Massachusetts Turnpike Authority officials' claim that they have the problem under control.

Leaks into the tunnel, which carries more than 200,000 vehicles a day beneath the heart of the city, came spectacularly into public view in September 2004 when a breach of one concrete wall caused so much flooding that two northbound lanes of Interstate 93 had to be temporarily closed. Since then, work crews have plugged more than three-quarters of the known leaks that allow the ground water surrounding the tunnel to gush in.

Last month, Michael P. Lewis, the turnpike's director of the $15 billion Big Dig project, released a report saying the amount of water being pumped out of the O'Neill Tunnel had been cut nearly in half from 2003 to 2006.

But a report by the state's consulting engineers to Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen largely rejects Lewis's reassurance, saying the overall leak volumes went up again in 2007 -- and making it impossible to conclude there has been any progress. The consulting engineers from Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates said that Turnpike officials still need to figure out where the water is coming from and stop it to avoid long-term damage to the tunnel, the centerpiece of the Big Dig system of highway tunnels and ramps.

"I don't think we have a water volume problem from an immediate safety perspective," said Robert R. Rooney, deputy transportation secretary for public works, whom Cohen has put in charge of resolving the leak issue. "What we have is a long-term durability concern if the elements in the tunnel continue to be exposed to water."

"There's a lot of money at stake," he said.

The severity of the leaks is at the heart of ongoing talks between state Attorney General Martha Coakley and Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the joint venture that oversaw the Big Dig, regarding how much the consortium should pay the state for shoddy workmanship and other quality problems in the project.

Officials who have been briefed on the talks say Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff has offered at least $300 million to resolve all outstanding issues including both the O'Neill Tunnel leaks and the ceiling collapse in another tunnel that killed a Jamaica Plain woman last year.

As a result, the leak analysis by Wiss, Janney as well as Rooney and others is going straight to the state attorneys negotiating with Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, which had promised back in 2004 to resolve the leaks problem "within months, not years."

The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority in 2005 revoked the Turnpike's permit to pump up to 36,000 gallons of water per month from Big Dig tunnels into the sewer system because all the leaks caused the agency to pump at least 50 times the permitted amount. The two agencies have been negotiating a new limit for Big Dig discharges ever since.

However, drivers using the tunnel scarcely notice the chronic leaks, which drain into holding areas beneath the road surface, where high-volume pumps dispose of the water. Rooney said a major wall breach that would flood the road surface is now unlikely, but the constant flow of water and the moisture gradually erode the concrete and steel reinforcing bars of the tunnel.

The turnpike spends nearly $5 million a year plugging leaks in the O'Neill Tunnel, and Rooney said maintenance costs could increase substantially over the years if the water isn't better controlled.

The controversy also underscores the Turnpike Authority's continued dependence on engineers from Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff for technical expertise, despite the tarnishing of the joint venture's reputation locally and the fact that the Big Dig has been substantially finished for more than a year. Lewis relied on data supplied by Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff for his optimistic July 17 report on the tunnel leaks to the Turnpike board of directors, according to Transportation Secretary Cohen, who took over as turnpike board chairman on July 1.

"A lot of the information in his presentation had been prepared by Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff staff," said Cohen, noting that the company that managed design and construction has a financial incentive to minimize the seriousness of the leaks. "I had a question about the validity of the data, the validity of the conclusions," he said.

Cohen asked Wiss, Janney to offer a second opinion on the tunnel leaks, resulting in far different conclusions. The engineers found that water pumped from the O'Neill Tunnel had only dropped from 8 million gallons in the first six months of 2005 to 7.5 million gallons in the same period this year, a decrease they called "at best . . . ambiguous" because it may reflect differences in rainfall rather than better leak control.

The spokesman, Andrew M. Paven, also denied that Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff had any influence on the turnpike's conclusion that the leak problem is diminishing. "The data are from Turnpike Authority pump systems. We read the pumps," said Paven, senior vice president at O'Neill and Associates, which provides public relations for Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff.

However, Deputy Public Works Secretary Rooney said he is not reassured that, while the number of leaks is shrinking, the volume of water is not. "If you're going to reduce all the roof joint leaks and you're not going to decrease volume, then where is the water coming from?" he asked.

Rooney said likely water sources include rainwater that enters through the tunnel portals, water from washing the tunnel's walls or fighting car fires or rushing from broken drinking water pipes. But perhaps the most important source is the ground water that surrounds the tunnel as it passes 40 feet underground. The important thing, he said, is to find each source and reduce or eliminate it.

Scott Allen can be reached at allen@globe.com.

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