Sewers: Plant is a mess

SOUTHWEST HARBOR — The Southwest Harbor Water and Sewer District is taking steps to address serious issues found at the wastewater treatment plant during a recent inspection by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

The Aug. 30 inspection report is highly critical of how the plant is operated and maintained. A malfunctioning plant can result in the discharge of raw or improperly treated sewage into the harbor.

“The department has concerns about operations at the plant given findings during this inspection,” the report states. “The operators do not appear to be aware of permit requirements and did not exhibit an acceptable level of competency with operational plans, laboratory work, reporting requirements and record keeping.”

The report notes that some of the issues are in violation of the permit issued for the plant to operate.

The district received the report, which also sets out recommendations and mandated corrective actions, in early October. In response, the district hired attorney Mary Costigan of Bernstein, Shur, Sawyer and Nelson P.A. in Portland to represent it. In an Oct. 21 letter to the DEP, Costigan wrote that the district has corrected some of the issues and is “working diligently” to address others.

Many of the issues cited by the DEP involve the use of improper test procedures, missing records of test results and the failure to fill out the required forms properly.

In August, for example, the DEP found a disorganized set of test records that included duplicate records for certain days. In the case of the duplicates, the results did not match. The records for August do not provide enough information on which to determine if the data is valid. Therefore, none of the data can be used to demonstrate that the plant is operating in compliance with its permit and other regulations, the report states.

The DEP inspected test records going back to January and found similar issues, including missing test results and mistakes in mathematical calculations.

The inspection report noted that alarms designed to alert people to problems at pump stations were either not functioning or inadequate. The pump stations also did not have the proper signs telling members of the public where to call if an alarm is activated.

Maintenance of equipment and the structural condition of the plant itself were concerns as well. Among the concerns of the DEP are the need to repair a machine that grinds up sewage, and pieces of concrete falling from the concrete ceiling of the plant.

In her letter to the DEP, Costigan stated that the issues involving improper testing and record keeping involve an employee who no longer works for the district.

“The district is unaware as to why some bench sheets are missing and why invalid or inconsistent test results were reported,” she wrote. “His actions were his own, and the district neither directed him to take such actions nor was the district aware of such actions.”

In September, the district’s three-member Board of Trustees voted to file a complaint with the Southwest Harbor Police Department regarding missing documents from the treatment plant.

Costigan pointed out the former employee, who was working at least through August, has been replaced by a knowledgeable employee trained in the proper procedures.

Costigan wrote that problems with the alarms have been corrected and signs ordered for pump stations. A new grinder has been ordered, and an engineering firm, Olver Associates of Winterport, is working to correct other issues at the plant as well as determining the source of “high-strength influent” that led to a significant issue at the plant in early July.

The DEP report indicates that the July problem, where this influent killed all bacteria in the plant’s aeration basin, making treatment ineffective, was not reported to the department as required and as indicated in district Manager Steve Kenney’s report to the district board at a July 14 meeting. The DEP was not made aware of the incident until the Aug. 30 inspection, the report states.

Costigan argues the minutes of that meeting reflect the recollection of the plant operator and stated that there is no written confirmation of the incident being reported.

Kenney said Tuesday that he would not comment on the report or the situation at the plant on the advice of Costigan.

It is unclear if the district is to face penalties for the alleged violations or if contaminants were discharged into Southwest Harbor as a result of operations at the plant.

A phone call request for comment from Clarissa Trasko of the DEP, who was the lead investigator during the August inspection, was not returned by press time.

Until Jan. 1, the wastewater treatment plant and water treatment plants were part of the town of Southwest Harbor. After voters last year approved of the creation of the quasi-municipal entity, the assets of the water and sewer department were transferred to the Southwest Harbor Water and Sewer District.

Mark Good

Mark Good

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Mark Good

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