SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Selectmen last week learned of new issues at the town’s wastewater treatment plant now under ownership by the quasi-municipal Southwest Harbor Water and Sewer District.
An engineering audit of the plant by Olver Associates of Winterport conducted prior to the Jan. 1 transfer of the plant and assets to the district found “significant issues” in operation of the plant. Those issues involve testing procedures, recordkeeping, safety and operation. Those problems were discussed at a Jan. 12 selectmen’s meeting.
At a Jan. 26 meeting, Town Manager Don Lagrange reported to selectmen that sludge had not properly been removed from areas within the plant and has built up over time. The news, on top of the findings in the Olver report, did not sit well with Selectman Lydia Goetze.
“It seems to me this is the result of years of mismanagement,” Goetze said.
In an email to Lagrange and others, Steve Kenney, the manager of the water and sewer district, explained the build-up of sludge was discovered while he and the chief operator of the sewer plant were trying to determine why one of the aeration basins was holding a large amount of solid materials. Opening a chamber they found a 12-foot deep chamber holding 10 feet of solid sludge and scum. An adjacent chamber had about five feet of sludge and scum.
“The chlorine diffusers were packed in sludge and obviously not functioning for a very long time,” Kenney wrote. “This puts into doubt how well our plant was really functioning, [the] accuracy of testing and a good chance we had violations in the past we were not aware of.”
Kenney noted he has contacted four companies for bids for removing the sludge. He estimated the cost at between $10,000 and $12,000.
This week Kenney said the issue didn’t occur overnight.
“From my understanding, it hadn’t been cleaned out for many years,” he said.
Sludge from another area of the plant routinely gets trucked either to Bar Harbor or Ellsworth for disposal, Kenney said. This material contains about 90 percent water. The water wasn’t being removed before the sludge was trucked off, leading to disposal costs that were higher than necessary.
“We were shipping water instead of solids,” Kenney said.
The water now is being removed resulting in considerable savings in the operation of the plant.
The sewer plant must conduct tests periodically and report any violations to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. In his email, Kenney noted that test results have been hovering near the level that constitutes a violation. In November, the plant was in violation, he added.
The transfer of the town’s sewer and water treatment plants to the district is seen by town officials as improving the efficiency and operation of the plants. Kenney said that, despite being short-handed, problems at both plants are being corrected.
The chief operators of the sewer and water plants are giving 110 percent, he said. However, the water plant operator is working part-time due to illness. Kenney said he has had to put in overtime to keep the plants operating properly. A job search is on for the fourth employee of the district.