Fifty-year-old Sewer Line Collapses, Disrupting Main Street

By: Tim Wood

Topics: sewers

A crew from Robert Our Co. works on replacing sewer main on Main Street last Friday. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – Repairs necessitated by the collapse of a section of a 50-year-old sewer line closed a section of Main Street to traffic and disrupted businesses for several days last week.

Although pedestrians continued to have access to the section of the Main Street between Cross Street and Chatham Bars Avenue, the traffic closure and presence of heavy construction equipment impacted business significantly.

“It was like a blizzard on a winter’s day,” Bob Totaro of Chatham Fine Arts said of the trickle of customers during much of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The collapsed sewer main occurred right outside his shop, across from the Chatham Squire at 487 Main St.

The same section of the road was closed again for several hours Saturday afternoon because of a water leak in a fire suppression line in the same location. Work crews had to cut the fire line out to get to the collapsed sewer main, and the leak developed where the new pipe was attached to the old one, according to Health and Natural Resources Director Roberrt Duncanson.

Town officials were aware of the age and poor condition of the sewer line between Cross Street and Chatham Bars Avenue. Replacement of the main has been long planned but was postponed when COVID hit. Because of the disruption to businesses in that section of Main Street that would be caused by the work, it can only be done in the middle of the winter, Duncanson said, and has yet to be rescheduled.

“Now, unfortunately, it’s caught up with us,” he said.

At first officials thought the problem was with a lateral line off the sewer main that connected to the Squire. Robert Our Co. was brought in to open the road and make the repair on Wednesday. “We thought that was it,” Duncanson said.

But on Thursday the sewer line was still blocked. A camera was lowered through a manhole and could not get past a point near the Squire lateral connection in either direction, indicating that a section of the main had collapsed.

“This is part of the old, original system from 1969, 1970,” Duncanson said.

The sewer department’s vacuum truck stood by overnight Thursday in case the main backed up. Beginning at 5 a.m. Friday, Our and town sewer department crews dug up the road and replaced a 20-foot section of the main. The original asbestos cement pipe had become brittle and caved in. The camera also revealed that most of the joints between the pipes had failed. It was likely that water and sediment was intruding into the system and possible that sewage was leaking as well, Duncanson said.

“It’s basically at the end of its useful life,” he said.

A short-term fix will be “sliplining” the old main between manholes on either side of the collapsed area, which involves placing a flexible liner inside the sewer main to prevent further breaks or infiltration of sediment into the system, he said.

The incident is likely to accelerate plans to replace the old main.

“We definitely know it needs to be done sooner rather than later,” said Duncanson.

Shops in the closed section of Main Street saw business fall off considerably on Wednesday, part of Thursday and most of Friday, until the repairs were completed and the section of roadway was paved over in the late afternoon. Eric Linder of Yellow Umbrella Books’ business was noticeably slow, even though pedestrians continued to have access and vehicles could park behind his building.

“It’s been pretty slow,” agreed April Cabral of Sundance Clothing, located across the alley from The Squire. “At least it’s not the weekend,” she said Friday.

Totaro said communications from the town could have been better. Business owners did not know what to expect and whether it was permissible to use water and flush toilets (an initial email notice from the town asked businesses not to flush toilets and use water “sparingly"). He said he received no advanced notice of the work on Friday.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “There really wasn’t adequate communications.”

He added, “It’s a good thing it didn’t happen over the holiday weekend.”

The sewer line break forced the Squire to close for about a day and a half, Duncanson said. Emails to Squire management were not returned by press time.