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Another release of wastewater reaches creek

August 14, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - Up to 4 million gallons of wastewater that had not been disinfected were dumped into Antietam Creek beginning early Friday after electrical equipment failed, Hagerstown city officials said.

Water contact advisories were posted Friday along the creek from the City of Hagerstown's Waste Water Treatment Plant to the Potomac River. Wastewater that has not been disinfected contains illness-causing bacteria from human feces.

Friday's advisory was the most recent posted along the creek this year as a result of the city's sewage plant not being able to fully treat water.

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City officials are planning some costly upgrades to the plant, some of which are expected to take place as soon as this week. But with tropical weather systems expected to move through the area this weekend, officials did not rule out more overflows.

Each time the city's plant releases more than 10,000 gallons of untreated or partially treated sewage, it must notify state environment and health officials. The city also must post signs along the creek.

The advisories are the most strict sanction the health department can take in response to a release of untreated or partially treated sewage.

State officials are looking into possible penalties that could be assessed against the city in connection with several such releases in recent years.

Friday's overflow was linked to a problem with the switch gear equipment, which has been the cause of at least one other sewage system overflow this year. The switch gear acts like the circuit breaker to a home, but on a larger scale. It was faulted in the Aug. 1 overflow of 2.7 million gallons of partially treated water.

Friday's overflow was not linked to excess rainwater, which is another problem the system faces.

At 11:30 p.m. Thursday, the switch gear failed. While some parts of the plant still were running, measurement gauges and the pumps that feed water through the disinfection phase of treatment stopped working, officials said.

After about an hour, the system overflowed, officials said. The partially treated, but not disinfected water poured out of a gate near the disinfecting station, bypassing it and flowing into a drainage ditch that leads to the creek.

City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman said there were repeated electrical failures during the night while crews were trying to bring the system back on line.

"It's like trying to repair a car or replace (its) tires ... while it's moving," Zimmerman said.

The partially treated water still was flowing strongly until Friday at 11:30 a.m.

Plant Superintendent Donnie Barton estimated that between 3 million and 4 million gallons of water that had not been disinfected were released into the creek. Definite numbers were not available because of the electrical failure.

Replacing the 24-year-old switch gear is one of the plant upgrades scheduled to take place soon. City officials said they expect the switch gear replacement will cost between $100,000 and $200,000 and be complete by January.

In the next 12 to 15 months, a $5.4 million project already approved by the mayor and City Council will increase the city's pumping capacity, which should help to avoid some of the overflow-causing backups.

In the meantime, the city is planning to spend about $115,000 on backup generators over the next six months or so while the other work continues.

Zimmerman said the spending will not stress the budget, and he defended the city's actions to address the growing problems. He said the electrical problem didn't present itself until this summer.

"We're dealing with a very complex system," Zimmerman said. "I think (plant workers) have been on top of it. It's just, we've got a failing system that failed faster" than expected.

Zimmerman said the City Council has given the go-ahead to start spending money on upgrades.

"Nobody likes the overflows. ... We're gonna have to pay some money" to fix the plant, Zimmerman said.

The city also will have to answer to state officials, said Richard McIntire, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

McIntire said that between June 2002 and May of this year, the city had reported 16 cases of partial disinfection, similar to what happened Friday.

"Obviously, we are very much aware of those problems," McIntire said. "There will be some type of enforcement action that will be taken."

McIntire said he did not know what enforcement would be taken against the city, but the state could fine the city up to $10,000 for each day of violation. McIntire also said the MDE was in negotiations with the city to determine the penalties and when the city would begin paying any fines, if they were assessed.

The warnings on the creek will remain until tested bacteria levels below the city's treatment plant return to normal, or after 30 days.

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