A 44-year-old sewage pipe under Wells Harbor has broken four times in the past month, prompting warnings against swimming, fishing and shellfish harvesting in the area.

Local officials say the sewage leaks have not led to dangerous levels of fecal coliform, but the Wells Sanitary District is trying to speed up a $1.5 million project to replace the pipe because it is floating off the bottom and has been weakened by repairs.

The plastic pipe, which stretches beneath Wells Harbor and carries sewage to a treatment plant, was installed in the 1970s and anchored with concrete and stainless steel. Those anchors held until four years ago, when Nick Rico, superintendent of the sanitary district, got a call that the pipe was floating. New anchors were installed to hold the pipe down, and there were no further issues until this year when the pipe began floating again.

The pipe broke for the first time on July 8 under the sand below the high tide mark. After pumps were shut off to stop sewage from leaking, a contractor came in to repair the pipe and backfill the area, Rico said.

The pipe broke again on July 21 when it was struck by a boat. That repair had to be done by divers in the channel. Three days later, another boat strike broke the pipe yet again. On Monday, the pipe broke at a mechanical coupling and was repaired the same day.

The pipe is now weighted down with about 17,000 pounds of concrete. On Friday, a team of divers will be back to reinforce the repair and make sure the anchoring system is intact. They will return to inspect it every two weeks until its replacement begins.


After each break, the sanitary district shut down its pumps and tested water in the area. None of the tests has shown elevated levels of fecal coliform, Rico said, and there has been no danger to people swimming or fishing in the harbor. The town’s beaches, which attract thousands of visitors each summer, have not been affected by the breaks. The warnings are precautionary.

“This pipe just doesn’t want to be in the channel anymore,” Rico said.

The sanitary district began planning to replace the pipe in 2018, but it’s a long process that includes securing permission from state and federal agencies. Rico said the pandemic pushed back the schedule to replace the pipe in 2021, but he was able to put the project out to bid last spring.

The contractor and subcontractor, Northeast Earth Mechanics and Henniker Directional Drilling, had been expecting to start the project after Oct. 11, but are now trying to rearrange schedules to do the work sooner. Rico has secured permission from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to start work before Oct. 11, the date on the project permit. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Tuesday granted a revised permit to allow work to start on Sept. 5.

To try to prevent more boat strikes, the town harbormaster has deployed extra buoys and channel markers to keep mariners away from the pipe. But many boaters seem not to know how to navigate those markers – keep the red marker to the right when entering the harbor – and come close to striking it, said Bill Giroux, the interim town manager.

“If they follow that boating rule, they will not hit the pipe,” he said.

Giroux acknowledged that it is frustrating that the pipe keeps floating and being struck by boats, but says the sanitary district has done a “great job” responding to the problem.

“Fortunately, none of the water tests have come back with dangerous levels through any of the breaks,” he said.

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