West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 22 | Oct. 31 - Nov. 06, 2007

Board 3 area is being flooded by water-main breaks

By Clark Merrefield

From a hairline fracture to a severe crack, water mains in Community Board 3’s Lower East Side and Chinatown have broken more times this year — 15 — than in any other community board district in Manhattan, according to city statistics.

A break in May at Second Ave. and Seventh St. flooded storefronts and apartment basements, creating a small lake in one of the busier sections of the East Village.

Afiget Breton, who’s worked at Moishe’s Bake Shop on Second Ave. for 10 years, described the bubbling water that suddenly came up from below the asphalt.

“You know when the toilet is backed up? Like that,” she said. “In more than one place. It was here, it was over there — it was the whole street.”

The 15 breaks this year represent a 150 percent increase from the six reported in C.B. 3 in 2005. Board 3 includes the area bounded by 14th St., the Bowery/Fourth Ave., the East River and Frankfort St. just south of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Besides flooding from full-on breaks, leaking water pipes can result in another hazard: burst steam pipes. Mayor Mike Bloomberg has said the steam pipe explosion near Grand Central Terminal in July that injured dozens was likely caused by a leaky water pipe, though Con Edison has not completed its investigation.

On Oct. 17 the energy company filed a notice of claim — which gives them the option to sue the city — regarding the Grand Central steam pipe break.

“This is a routine procedural matter necessary in the event the investigation determines that the city’s infrastructure contributed to the steam-main rupture,” Joe Petta, a Con Ed spokesman, said.

But most water-main breaks don’t result in catastrophe. A rumbling truck or an errant backhoe, eroding soil and electrical currents that weaken metal are just a few of the reasons for the several hundred water-main breaks the city experiences each year.

“We don’t typically notice them because they’re small, unobtrusive, they happen far deep down and the reasons why they occur are very, very numerous,” said Rae Zimmerman, director of New York University’s Institute for Civil Infrastructure Systems.

She added that the increase in water-main breaks in C.B. 3’s district since 2005 is not a “significant difference.”

“It could just be something that has built up over time — a water main doesn’t just break, it’ll weaken and then break,” Zimmerman said.
Though slim, the possibility exists that a leaking water pipe could cause a nearby steam pipe to burst, like near Grand Central. The physics are that when cold water gets on a hot steam pipe, vapor turns to water and forms a bubble. The bubble eventually pops and the remaining space is filled by steam, sometimes creating enough pressure to crack the pipe.

“The water mains will continue to break due to a lot of things,” Zimmerman said, adding that the city is attentive to pipe replacement.

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