After failing for 2 years, Washburn vows to fix sewage plantThe city of Washburn has been violating Wisconsin sewage release regulations for more than two years but may be moving toward compliance after months of effort to tweak its sewage treatment plant.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
The city of Washburn has been violating Wisconsin sewage release regulations for more than two years but may be moving toward compliance after months of effort to tweak its sewage treatment plant.
The 15-year-old plant suddenly stopped working in December 2009 and started sending up to 300,000 gallons of partially treated sewage into Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay every day — with contaminants far in excess of state regulations.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources issued a notice of non-compliance to the city after four months of violations and in June 2010 slapped a moratorium on any new construction, allowing no new sewage mains or extensions or commercial hookups until the problem is solved.
But, 30 months later, the city is still in violation of state limits on fecal coliform, phosphorus, biological oxygen demand (organic matter) and suspended solids, said Lonn Franson, the DNR’s wastewater engineer in Hayward.
State law requires treated sewage released to be at 400 colonies of fecal coliform per 100 milliliters. But Washburn’s has routinely been as high as 30,000 to 60,000, Franson said, and sometimes test results come back “TNC,” too numerous to count for the bacteria that’s found in human waste. That bacteria is an indicator of serious pathogens that can cause serious sickness if water is swallowed.
The state requires treatment plants to reduce the “biological oxygen demand” in sewage to 30 milligrams per liter. Raw sewage is about 200 milligrams per liter. Washburn’s effluent — treated sewage — has been averaging about 60 milligrams per liter, double the state limit, Franson said.
Biological oxygen demand is a scientific name for organic matter that uses up oxygen in the water. It’s a good sign that unusual waste or runoff is at a high level. Franson said the plant’s final disinfection, an ultra violet system, is functioning but can’t remove all the problem materials because the water is too dirty with suspended solids when it gets there.
“It’s not untreated. It’s not raw sewage. But it’s much higher than state guidelines,” Franson said. “Their system just isn’t doing the job.”
Beach advisories increase
So far there doesn’t appear to be any major environmental or public health problems caused by the longstanding influx of sewage that is only partially treated. The city’s sewer pipe runs into Chequamegon Bay not far from Thompson’s West End Beach.
Terri Kramolis, director of the Bayfield County Health Department, said there have been no reports of public illness traced to swimming or other activities at the beach. But she did note that beach advisories and closures near where the city’s sewage flows into Lake Superior have increased the past two years.
A News Tribune review of Wisconsin beach testing records found an average of 1 closure and 1.4 advisories issued each summer for Thompson’s West End Beach in Washburn from 2003 through 2009. But in 2010 and 2011, with the sewage plant failing, closures increased to 2 per year on average and advisories to 4. The advisories and closures are posted when water tests reveal high levels of bacteria that could make people sick if swallowed.
Increases in bacteria forcing beach advisories and closures “could be from any number of sources. You can’t point to any specific connection with the sewage plant problem. But it is certainly an interesting coincidence,” Kramolis told the News Tribune.
Because Thompson’s is a popular swimming beach and has an RV park, Kramolis said her agency will double the number of water quality tests taken this summer to four times weekly — which will make it the most tested beach in the Northland. Most Lake Superior beaches are tested only once or twice weekly in the summer under the federally funded beach monitoring program that started in 2003.
Little public notice
Kramolis noted that expanded testing might have been conducted the past two summers except that health officials weren’t notified of the sewage problem until last month when she heard Washburn’s mayor mention the violations on a local radio show. That was the first time the issue had reached a broad public audience.
“Nobody thought to inform us that this might be a health issue,” she said.
Franson said the DNR is required to work with city officials and is not required to notify the public or other agencies when municipal plants are in violation.
“Ideally we would have worked with the health department, and that really didn’t happen,” he said.
Franson said it is the city’s responsibility to make their users aware of the problem.
Scott Kluver, Washburn city administrator, conceded the city did a poor job of notifying the public of the problem over the past two years. That’s now changing because the city is hoping outside experts might help explain what happened to the treatment plant.
“We’re hoping maybe someone might be able to tell us of something that might have gone into the system that knocked it out,” Kluver said. “We’re still investigating whether it was some sort of toxic input that caused this. But we haven’t found anything yet.”
DNR experts and private consultants have been summoned to help solve the riddle of why the once functional plant stopped working. In essence, the bacteria that normally break down human and industrial waste and remove dangerous pathogens simply died off. Several efforts to import active sewage from Ashland and Bayfield to kick-start the Washburn plant failed.
In March, Kluver said the city entirely shut down the plant, storing incoming sewage in a lagoon temporarily while the plant was cleaned and inspected. All equipment was checked by the manufacturers, and technical malfunctions don’t appear to be the issue.
“The problem is biological and chemical, not equipment. It’s a recipe you have to get right, and ours just went bad, and we just haven’t been able to get it back,” Kluver said.
DNR officials have been patient, working with the city instead of imposing fines. However, if the city was found not to be working hard enough to solve the issue, the DNR could refer the case to the state Department of Justice. Washburn could face up to a $10,000 fine every day the sewage plant violates state regulations.
But in recent days there may be some good news. Kluver said Friday that weekly tests now show the plant’s active sludge is waking up and that the city’s effluent entering the lake may soon be within state regulations.
“It’s going to take a while to get there, and probably take several months of compliance before the state lifts the moratorium, but I’m crossing my fingers that we’re heading in the right direction,” Kluver said.
Until then, the DNR’s Franson said there are no viable options for treating the wastewater, such as sending it to another plant, because of the large volume.
“Our goal is to solve the problem, and we are working toward that. But it’s been extremely frustrating. No one can figure out what’s causing the problem,” Franson said. “I’m hopeful we will get an answer any day now. But, obviously, this can’t go on forever. At some point we have to look at the city making some bigger changes or taking some action.”
While Franson said it’s not unusual for municipal plants to fail state regulations after a toxic shock or massive rainstorm or flood, most plants can quickly recover after just a few days. No one has seen a plant knocked out for more than two years — until now.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my 25 years doing this,” Franson said. “Nothing they do seems to fix the problem.”