Chestnut Street bridge at Needham-Dover line/ Credit: Needham Observer

The leak of transmission fluid from an Eversource high voltage line into the Charles River at the Needham-Dover line apparently will have a more negative near-term impact on local traffic than it will on the long-term health of the river.

Eversource became aware of the release of Pipe-Type Cable (PTC) transmission fluid on the south side of the bridge crossing the Charles River on Chestnut Street two days before Christmas. According to Eversource, “PTC fluid was observed trickling through a crack in the paved roadway, indicating a release from the underground transmission pipe.”

Eversource described the PTC fluid as “a low toxicity, highly refined synthetic dielectric fluid,” which acts as an insulator to cool underground transmission lines. The utility reported the spill to the state Department of Environmental Protection and engaged the environmental services firm Clean Harbors to complete two rounds of oiled-debris cleanup in the wooded area.

In a statement, Eversource said the crews did not observe any impacts to the river during the initial cleanup, but they did deploy an absorbent boom as a cautionary measure to contain potential impacts from the release of oil into the river. When workers returned the next morning to observe the site in daylight, “a light sheen was observed on the Charles River downstream of the Chestnut Street bridge.”

Work crews and more than a dozen pieces of equipment have been there since, taking measures to contain and mitigate the release of the fluid. Additional booms have been deployed to recover emulsified PTC fluid that has accumulated.

Because the Charles River is at flood stage level, only limited fluid removal is considered safe to perform. As a consequence, the pace of work has been slow and could take weeks to complete.

Gerald Clarke is a former longtime volunteer Dover official, having led the town’s Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program until this past fall. He has been in contact with Eversource officials and explained that the water level has delayed their efforts to find the source of the leak in the transmission pipe.

“They first have to find where the leak is,” Clarke said. “That will give them the opportunity to learn whether they can fix the conduit or if they have to replace the whole thing.”

Crews have opened up the pavement at two different segments of the road on the southbound side of the bridge to gain access to the river. This has reduced Chestnut Street to one lane of travel and required Needham Police to close Chestnut at South Street.

Rather than allowing traffic to continue on Chestnut and into Dover, the detour directs vehicles down South Street to Willow Street in Dover. Heavier vehicles are directed to Mill Street instead of Willow due to weight restrictions.

Needham Police Chief John Schlittler said Eversource has agreed to pay for the police details for as long as they are needed. “We’re reassessing weekly,” he said. “Nothing is etched in stone but we’ve been told to expect it to last a couple of weeks.”

As often happens with temporary detours, Schlittler said a few drivers have gone around the detour to enter Chestnut. This creates a challenging situation when they encounter oncoming traffic as they change lanes to make their way around the phalanx of dumpsters, trucks and other heavy equipment that occupy a few hundred yards of the entire southbound lane of the two-lane road.

“The detour is pretty simple,” said Schlittler. “But there will always be people who are going to drive around a sign. Certainly not many, but there’s always a few.”

Schlittler said officers working the details try to be patient, but repeat offenders may find themselves being ticketed. “They’ll have to face repercussions if they persist.”

Should the project drag on for multiple weeks, Schlittler said the department might consider rerouting traffic in a more elaborate way. He notes that a significant amount of traffic heads into Needham along Chestnut, perhaps most significantly ambulances heading to BID-Needham.

In addition to having to negotiate the detour, residents of South Street report they have experienced sporadic power outages over the past week or so. As of 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, Eversource was reporting 223 Needham customers without service, although that number had dropped to zero by midafternoon.

Eversource could not be reached to answer whether the recent outages were related to the ongoing work. Some South Street residents were without power for nearly two days after the Dec. 18 storm took out transformers on poles near 1327 and 1360 South St.

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