District, town on hook for sewage violations

SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Failure to transfer a license for the wastewater treatment plant from the town to the Southwest Harbor Water and Sewer District has left both entities potentially liable for violations at the plant, according to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

The town transferred its sewer and water departments to the newly formed district on Jan. 1 of this year but did not file an application to transfer the waste discharge license to the district. That is required by state law, according to Brian Kavanah, director of the DEP’s division of water quality management. The oversight leaves the town and the district responsible for violations discovered during the department’s Aug. 30 inspection at the plant.

Kavanah notified the district and town of the license transfer issue in a Sept. 17 letter. Maine law requires that an application for transfer of a waste discharge license be made no later that two weeks after the transfer of ownership or interest is completed, he stated.

During the Aug. 30 inspection, Clarissa Trasko and Gary Brooks of the DEP identified numerous issues of concern at the plant including improper testing procedures, missing records of test results and an alarm at a pump station that was inoperative. Their report is highly critical of how the plant has been operated and notes that several of these issues are violations of the permit issued for the plant.

Kavanah said the DEP is assessing those violations to see if penalties are warranted.

“Potentially any violation of a license is enforceable,” Kavanah said. “We are still evaluating the situation and will determine if any actions are to be taken.”

Those actions could include an administrative consent agreement detailing corrective actions the town and district must take in order to stay in operation and the assessment of fines, Kavanah said. Fines typically range from hundreds of dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. In extreme cases, fines have been in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.

The release of untreated sewage into the town’s harbor as the result of improper operation of the plant is “certainly possible,” Kavanah said. But, without consistent and accurate test records, it is difficult to determine what actually occurred, he added.

Shellfish flats in harbor have long been closed to clamming and other harvesting activities.

The DEP is interested in getting a long-term picture of what has been happening and has requested three years of records regarding operation of the plant. Plant operators are legally obligated to maintain the past three years of records. Despite several requests, the DEP, as of Friday, had not received the documents, Trasko said.

The district has hired attorney Mary Costigan of Bernstein, Shur, Sawyer and Nelson P.A. in Portland to represent them regarding issues that surfaced during the DEP inspection and noted in the report. In an Oct. 21 letter to the department, Costigan notes that some of the problems have been corrected and the district is “working diligently” to address others.

Costigan laid much of the blame on a former employee for the disorganized and incomplete record keeping. A knowledgeable and experienced employee since has been hired as a replacement, she wrote in the response.

Trasko said she is somewhat satisfied with the steps being taken by the district to get the plant into compliance.

“To some degree, yes,” she said. “There are some issues that are pending and haven’t been resolved yet.”

The DEP has asked the district to look into another situation where sewage flowing into the plant appears periodically to have unusually high levels of organic compounds. In July, one of these “bad loads” killed all bacteria in an aeration basin at the plant, thereby making treatment ineffective.

According to Trasko, a review of what records she was able to review from the plant for 2016 showed levels of organic compounds on some days were above 1,000 milligrams per liter. Normally, wastewater flowing into treatment plants has levels between 300 and 400 milligrams per liter, she said.

Trasko said she didn’t know what might be causing this problem in Southwest Harbor. In other municipalities, she said, the problem has been traced to causes that include the illegal dumping of sewage into the system and the sudden release of a build-up of solids in the sewer lines during a rainstorm.

Kavanah raised the possibility that the records are misleading due to errors in calculations.

“It’s either actually occurring or else the data is not accurate,” he said.

The district has hired an engineering firm to look into this problem and other issues at the plant.

Mark Good

Mark Good

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Mark Good

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