Last EPA-required Brewer sewer separation project under way

Posted Sept. 30, 2011, at 9:33 p.m.

BREWER, Maine — It’s a dirty job, but Brewer had to do it.

The city and other communities that line the Penobscot River, including sister city Bangor, received orders in the late 1980s and early 1990s to separate storm water and sewer lines that years ago would dump sewage into the state’s largest waterway whenever the system flooded.

“In a two-year period from April 1989 to April 1991, the Brewer Treatment Plant reported 264 discharge violations of their wastewater discharge permit,” Ken Locke, Brewer’s environmental services director, said Friday.

The violations, logged with the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, led to Brewer entering into an administrative consent agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1992 to correct the problems.

After nearly 20 years, and millions upon millions of dollars out of ratepayers’ pockets, the final project identified in that consent agreement is under way, Locke said, adding that all the hard work has paid off.

“The city of Brewer Water Pollution Control facility has not reported a violation of its treatment discharge permit since 1994 — over 17 years,” he said.

The first step city officials took was to upgrade the Wastewater Treatment Plant, now called the Water Pollution Control Facility, at a cost of $7 million, and each year since has tackled a project or two on the corrective list, mostly involving separating combined storm water and sewer lines, Locke said.

“The only project we haven’t completed is Tibbetts,” he said. “We’re hoping to finish it this fall. We’re waiting on a telephone pole to be moved to start.”

The Tibbetts Street project includes installing new sewer and storm water lines from Tibbetts Street to Kings Court and connecting them to Main Street, said Locke, who started working for Brewer shortly after the 1992 agreement was signed.

“When we started back in 1992, 75 percent of the city had combined sewer and storm water lines,” Locke said. “Right now, it’s probably about 2 percent.”

After the Tibbetts Street project is completed, all of the city’s approximately 46 miles of combined sewage and storm water runoff lines will be separated, preventing sewage overflows from polluting the river, he said.

Once the work is done, the city will hire a consultant engineering firm to review the entire system for a master plan update, Locke said.

“They’ll go through the entire city again to give us an idea about how well we did” and will “identify if we need to pursue other projects,” he said.

Estimates for the citywide project came in way under actual expenditures, and sewer ratepayers have paid for the whole project, Locke said.

“The estimated cost … was $7,390,000 in 1993 dollars,” he said. “In the end, we spent about $25 million.”

The project costs have caused the sewer rate to more than double, going from $2.98 in 1992 to $7.83 today for residential customers to process the first 100 cubic feet of sewage.

Business customers are paying $9.40.

City officials were able to get around $2 million in low- or no-interest loans from federal stimulus money, which paid for the last two projects, Locke said.

City Manager Steve Bost explained at the September City Council meeting that the sewer rate is tied to the large debts associated with the consent agreement projects, which “are beyond our control.”

“We’re hoping at the conclusion of the consent agreement that we’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Bost said, indicating a reduction in sewer rates may follow.

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