BOSTON -- The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority may seek an extension to a federal court-ordered deadline to complete a sewage tunnel system now that safety concerns have delayed the project, the authority said Wednesday night.

The delay, although a major inconvenience, will probably not increase the project's costs, said Mari Sullivan, an MWRA spokeswoman.

"We have a contingency fund that we will be able to access if we have to," Sullivan said. "That fund was established to prevent the authority from having to panic in a case like this."

The delay was triggered by a fire on June 15 in a five-mile connecting tunnel between Deer Island and Nut Island. The tunnel will be used to transport sewage to the Deer Island Primary Treatment facility.

After the fire, a Boston fire department investigation showed that the superstructure of the tunnel was unharmed. However, a committee was established to review safety concerns and possible enhancements to the plant's safety features.

The fire also prompted the authority to stop work on a separate nine-mile tunnel in the system.

Sullivan said the committee compiled a list of 22 suggestions to improve or enhance the tunnel system's safety requirements.

Walter Armstrong, the authority's director of program management, denied recent press reports saying no work on the tunnels can go on until all 22 suggestions are addressed.

"That was just not accurate," he said. "Clean-up work is scheduled to resume in the tunnel on Monday."

However, Armstrong said, there will be no further mining work until the conveyor belt and hydraulic lift in the five-mile tunnel have been examined. Armstrong said about another one and a half miles need to be mined.

The MWRA had most recently estimated that the project would open in July 1995. How the delay will affect that target is unclear, Armstrong said.

"We won't really know the full extent of the damage or the delay it will cause the project for about another three weeks," Armstrong said.

The press reports also said that safety hatches must be installed in the nine-mile tunnel before construction can resume. But, Armstrong said, the evaluation team did not address hatches in the tunnel at all in its recommendations.

In the June fire, 43 workers trapped in the five-mile tunnel had to escape through tunnel hatches.

The delay's cost is also unclear. An article in the Quincy Patriot Ledger earlier this week said that if the authority has to assume both the costs of the fire and the delay, the bill could be as much as $I0 million.

But Sullivan said it was unlikely that the MWRA would have to assume all of the costs.

The MWRA was required in the mid-1980s by Judge A. David Mazzone to pay for the cleanup of the Boston Harbor and the construction of the Deer Island Sewage Treatment plant.

Although the projects were estimated to cost more than $7 billion, the authority now estimates the total cost at $4.8 billion.

The projects have been funded by the sale of MWRA revenue bonds secured by the payments that the authority collects for water and sewer services in more than 60 communities in the state.

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