November 28, 2022

Sewage woes cause Ellsworth to face undetermined fine

ELLSWORTH – Much like the direction in which sewage flows, conditions at the local wastewater treatment plant have been going downhill to the point that the city is expected to be fined by the state within the next couple of months for polluting the Union River.

Machinery breakdowns, a looming consent decree with the state over illegal sewage discharges and even an equipment-disabling lightning strike all are prompting the city to examine what needs to be done to improve its sewage treatment operation, Ellsworth City Manager Stephen Gunty said last week.

According to one state official, during a two-month period late last year, more than half a million gallons of untreated wastewater flowed into the Union River through an unsanctioned overflow pipe at the Water Street facility.

The official, James Crowley of Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said last Wednesday that the city will be fined an undetermined amount of money for the illegal overflows.

“We’re expecting something to come down to us in September,” Gunty said. “I think it will be a fine to get our attention.”

The city took a step last week to improve its sewage treatment operation by hiring Bangor engineering firm Woodard & Curran for $1,950 a week plus a housing stipend to manage daily operations at the plant.

The company, which last spring started conducting a $38,000 comprehensive evaluation of the plant, also last week was awarded a $9,800 contract to find sources of rainstorm surges into the sewer system that have caused the polluting discharges.

The decision to hire the engineering firm to manage the facility comes with some personnel changes at the plant.

Operator Scott Blethen resigned for personal reasons unrelated to his job performance, Gunty said, and wastewater department Superintendent Ray Robidoux has elected to take on a deputy role at the facility.

The city intends to have a new department head at the plant when its operations management contract with Woodard & Curran expires, he said.

Crowley, an environmental specialist in DEP’s water resources division, said state scrutiny of the city’s plant intensified in late 2001 when a fire at the plant knocked out its electrical power, rendering the facility unable to pump out any wastewater.

State officials, noting that sewage was not backing up into the city’s sewer lines, searched for where the sewage was going and found the illegal connection under a manhole cover in the plant’s driveway, he said.

Since then, a meter has been installed on the pipe to determine how much sewage flows into the river during storm surges.

The pipe cannot be blocked off because the plant lacks the capacity to handle the storm flows and, if it were closed, the sewage simply would surface somewhere else, either in the streets or in the basements of nearby homes, Crowley said.

From mid-October to mid-December last year, the meter measured 588,000 gallons of untreated wastewater that flowed through the pipe into the Union River, according to Crowley.

The tidal river has been closed to shellfish harvesting for more than 10 years because of the treated discharge that is released legally into the river, according to state officials.

The documented illegal overflows prompted the state last November also to prohibit shellfish harvesting in all of Union River Bay, from the mouth of the river to the tips of Newbury Neck in Surry and Oak Point in Trenton.

“Some of the overflows were fairly substantial,” Crowley said, noting that on two separate days more than 225,000 gallons of untreated sewage flowed into the river. Though the untreated material that gets into the river is diluted by the storm runoff, it is still considered illegal discharge, he said.

“You wouldn’t want to be recreating in the river while an overflow is occurring,” Crowley said.

DEP officials said last week that the illegal pipe connection might date back to 1978, when the Ellsworth plant was built. The department is not so concerned with the history of the overflows as it is with getting the problem fixed, they said.

“They might not have known about it,” Crowley said of city officials. “There are no records that the [city] or the treatment plant have about when it was installed.”

Complicating these problems are several mechanical breakdowns at the plant, one of which was caused by a lightning strike in May, according to Robidoux. Because of the strike, one of the facility’s two digester tanks is inoperable, which has reduced the quality of the treated wastewater product that legally drains into the river, Robidoux said.

Only three of the plant’s five rotating “bacterial contactors” – large, horizontally mounted cylinders that mix waste-eating bacteria with sewage – are working.

One is being replaced for approximately $95,000 and another is being repaired for $7,500, according to Ellsworth Finance Director Michelle Beal. A third cylinder was replaced two years ago, also at an estimated cost of $95,000, Beal said Friday.

How much it may cost to repair the lightning-damaged digester tank has not yet been determined, she said.

Overall, $1.2 million in possible improvements have been identified at the plant, city officials have said. Whether Ellsworth will upgrade the existing plant or seek to build a new facility at another location will depend on what recommendations come out of the ongoing plant evaluation.

Gunty said the city is prepared to raise its sewer rates in the near future and to make significant improvements in its sewage treatment capability.

“We’re committed to resolve those concerns,” the city manager said. “It’s going to be wide-sweeping changes.”

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