Citizen scientists sought for wastewater outfall monitoring

By Jordan Bailey | Mar 15, 2014
Photo by: Jordan Bailey An outfall pipe at the edge of the beach at Mack Point in Searsport.

A local group would like to supplement the Maine Department of Environmental Protection's oversight of the 37 licensed wastewater outfalls in Penboscot Bay, which are primarily self-monitored by the licensees.

Friends of Penobscot Bay Executive Director Ron Huber led a public discussion March 5 at the Belfast Free Library about how the flow of wastewater from sewage treatment plants and industrial outfalls is currently being managed and monitored by towns and state and federal agencies. He displayed maps of the locations of these outfalls obtained from a Google Earth document available for download at the DEP website.

The group is looking for volunteers to inspect the outfall pipes themselves, take pictures of them, using SCUBA and under-water cameras when necessary, and write summaries of their condition. Huber explained that occasionally the outfall pipes could be clogged or damaged, putting back pressure on the systems, or there could be evidence of accidental waste discharge that could have effects on the local ecology. They would like to get these kinds of things documented.

FOPB's outfall oversight plan would also involve volunteers reviewing each outfall licensee's discharge monitoring records, informing the company and/or the agency of anything amiss and taking appropriate advocacy actions as needed.

In addition, Huber says the group is considering starting a program called “hack the bay,” for people to take pH meters, infrared cameras and other devices to get some more detailed information about the condition of the bay and to monitor wastewater outfalls.

Huber said he believes the discharges are often violating the standards set in the facilities' licenses. "There is a standard and they’re violating it, going on sort of a sine wave around it." Huber said. "GAC chemical was really bad."

Huber also said that it is not necessarily a matter of cutting corners; the violations are most likely accidental. More eyes on the outfalls would put pressure on the facilities to continuously improve their wastewater treatment processes and discharge cleaner water into the bay.

Maine DEP Communications Director Jessamine Logan said in a phone call to The Republican Journal that the DEP's monitoring process is adequate. “The frequency with which a facility is inspected depends on the size of the facility, the license type… and what they are processing there,” she said, “and inspectors do check the condition of outfall pipes.” She also pointed out that the anyone who wants to see the Discharge Monitoring Reports that each facility must submit can request them from DEP.

Logan added that FOPB had expressed concerns over General Alum New England Chemical’s discharges, so the DEP inspectors did go out in October 2013 at their request to sample the outfall, but did not find any issues. At that point FOPB said they would do their own testing. However, Logan said, “for that data to be accepted by the EPA or DEP, the organization doing the monitoring would need to have an approved Quality Assurance Plan.”

In a phone call with The Journal, Maine DEP Water Quality Management Director Brian Kavanah further explained the agency’s monitoring process. The DEP was given authority to implement the federal Clean Water Act and state law around pollutant discharges.“The foundation of the whole program is self-monitoring," he said. "There must be a certified operator at the site who monitors the effluent according to certain specifications [laid out in the license] and who reports to us. All the data submitted, they have to certify that it is accurate and truthful. It is a violation to violate your license limits or to report false data; to do so intentionally is considered a criminal act with severe penalties. We've taken a few people to court over that. These penalties are known in the community and deter falsifications."

As for the inspections by DEP officials Kavanah said, "At least once a year we inspect. Periodically, not too often, we take samples. We inspect lab procedures, how they do their testing. Overall it is a pretty sound system with the penalties that exist. It has been in place since the Clean Water Act was implemented.”

Huber discussed the penalties for falsifying records in the March 5 meeting, but also pointed out that bringing a facility that reports violations into compliance is often a slow process, one which the state may or may not pursue. It sometimes takes citizen action to get a licensee to act. For example, in 2002, the Conservation Law Foundation filed federal Clean Water Act lawsuit against GAC because according to its Discharge Monitoring Reports, it was continuously violating its pH limits and discharging highly acidic water into Stockton Harbor, among other violations. GAC settled with the CLF in October 2002, by agreeing to partially fund an impact study of Stockton Harbor and to make improvements to its facility. It added limestone treatment to its process to neutralize acidic wastewater. "GAC should have noticed this earlier and added the limestone treatment on its own," said Huber.

Huber suggested more monitoring, sampling and testing of these facilities would be useful to get a fuller picture of the impact they are having on the bay, and that the DEP might be happy to have some citizen-science-type testing done for them because the agency can't afford to test everything it needs to.

But Searsport Shellfish Management Committee member Steven Tanguay said of his experience trying to open a clam flat, “DEP wouldn’t let us take our water sampling even with training to any labs, they had to do the water tests."

"To get any clam flat open, you have to have a committee in the town, cause it’s the only natural resource in the state where the town has complete control." Tanguay said. "Then you have to go through at least 20 water tests by the state over a 5 year period, with 100-percent positive results. Then maybe you can reopen that portion. That’s what it took for us to reopen some flats."

Even if the data obtained by volunteers are not used by the DEP or EPA, Huber would like to see more water quality data made available to regular citizens. Too often people go out and make observations about the bay, but the information is "put in a drawer and never seen again," he said. FOPB is working to collect water quality data measured by citizen scientists over the past 15-20 years and make that information visible to people. Some of this data is available at the group's website, www.penbay.net.

Waldo County outfall discharge violations, January 2009 - January 2014

All licensed wastewater or stormwater outfalls must submit a monthly Discharge Monitoring Report to the DEP. The only outfall in Waldo County that is currently in non-compliance with its discharge license is the Winterport Wastewater Treatment Facility. Kavanah explained that this facility used to have a 301 (H) waiver under the Clean Water Act, whereby it was not required to provide secondary (biological) treatment, only physical (settling) treatment before it discharged water into the Penobscot River. However, EPA informed the town of Winterport that the waiver could no longer be granted when it became apparent that the estuarine area of the Penobscot River was in "non attainment," meaning it does not meet certain water quality standards (not necessarily caused by the plant's discharge). The DEP issued them a new license without the waiver, which required that a new facility be built to accommodate the required bacterial treatment.

"Knowing that the town would not be able to make the changes immediately, the DEP moved forward with an enforcement schedule and Consent Agreement which the town is now following," Kavanah said. "That schedule gives them seven years to make the upgrades."

The Republican Journal obtained the monthly summary Discharge Monitoring Reports for each licensed outfall in Waldo County since 2009. The following table lists all of the violations reported by Waldo County licensees with outfalls into Penobscot Bay in that time; the date of the report; the parameter that was exceeded; the parameter limit for that license; and the parameter measurement. Winterport Wastewater Treatment Facility is not included in this list. It has had 119 total violations in 31 months since January 2009.

Facility

Report date

Parameter violated

Limit

Measured

General Alum New England Corp.

1/31/2011

pH standard

9 (max)

9.9

Sprague Operating Resources LLC

6/30/2013

Solids, total suspended

50

74

Irving Oil Terminals Inc.

7/31/2010

Chlorine, total

0.05

<0.07

Penobscot Mccrum, LLC

7/31/2011

Solids, total suspended

218

300

Islesboro Town of

9/30/2013

Fecal coliform

15

26

Northport Village Corporation

6/30/2012

Fecal coliform

50

190

Northport Village Corporation

8/31/2012

Fecal coliform

50

100

Belfast City of

2/28/2010

BOD - 5 day*

263

266

Belfast, City of

3/31/2010

BOD - 5 day*

263

284

Belfast,  City of

6/30/2010

Solids, settleable

0.3

0.4

Searsport , Town of

2/28/2009

BOD- 5 day*

203

214

Searsport, Town of

7/31/2011

BOD - 5 day*

203

219

Searsport,  Town of

8/31/2011

Fecal coliform

50

64

Searsport, Town of

11/30/2011

Fecal coliform

50

52

Searsport, Town of

4/30/2012

pH standard

9

9.3

 

* BOD = "biochemical oxygen demand: the amount of dissolved oxygen needed to decompose the organic matter in waste water: a high BOD indicates heavy pollution with little oxygen remaining for fish," from Webster's New World College Dicionary, 4th edition.

BOD, 5-day = "the amount of oxygen, in m.g. per liter of water, absorbed by a sample kept at 20°C for five days." - www.thefreedictionary.com.

The table has been corrected to take out three listings that were mistakenly labeled as violations in the Discharge Monitoring Report compilation the DEP sent to The Republican Journal.

Comments (4)
Posted by: Ronald Huber | May 06, 2014 12:47

Thank you Wellington. This is important to know.



Posted by: Ronald Huber | Mar 17, 2014 00:00

Thanks! Wellington for raising a host of questions in need of answering

Really getting to know the way around "Waldo Underground"  especially this POTW part, may be impossible without years of being of being part of it directly or indirectly. But you meet the most interesting clean water ecologists if you arrange a visit to one. Besides, "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty" including freedom to fish in clean water, and you need to know the people whos daily - no  HOURLY decisions make the waters beyond the pipe  fish-friendly or not.



Posted by: wellington dunbar | Mar 16, 2014 07:41

My suggestion to check with the municipalities is to suggest that there are many more outfall pipes than are listed in this article.



Posted by: wellington dunbar | Mar 15, 2014 22:16

Check the permitting from the municipalities. It is a matter of DEP rubber stamping discharges into Penobscot Bay. Permits once approved are good for 5 years. These are discharges allowed for single family residences who can easily afford to construct wastewater discharges into approved waste disposal systems aka as septic systems. There were at least four approved on a 5 year basis in the Town of Lincolnville alone. The Northport Village Corporation has been discharging only primary treated sewerage per DEP approval for many years. The Northport Village Corporation recently extended with taxpayer monies the outfall pipe into Penobscot Bay. There was no improvement in the treatment only the extension of the outfall pipe. This waste comes from very expensive properties who can afford proper treatment. Many homeowners within the Northport Village Corporation have legitimate waste disposal systems as required by the State Plumbing Code that include secondary treatment via leech beds. Why do the most expensive properties get a nod for primary treatment only? Thank you and thank you again for shedding light on this issue.



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