State threatens legal action against Rockland after too much sewage enters harbor

Posted May 13, 2013, at 9:22 p.m.
Last modified May 14, 2013, at 8:17 a.m.

ROCKLAND, Maine — The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is warning the city that it faces legal action including financial penalties for problems with its sewer system that allow too much pollution to enter the harbor.

The director of the city’s wastewater plant, however, said Rockland has spent $17 million over the past 15 years to improve the system and treatment plant. Rockland Pollution Control Director Terry Pinto said the city has hired additional workers and recently ordered a new video camera that will be able to detect deteriorating, collapsed or cracked sewer lines.

DEP compliance supervisor James Crowley told the town in an email last month that “you’ve got a lot of violations, and a lot of repeating violations. You’ve got far more total violations than we’d consider tolerable as being within a normal range of variation for a well-run plant.”

The violations include too high a concentration of sewage exiting the plant without being properly treated.

Brian Kavanah, director of the water quality division for the DEP, said it’s not uncommon for the state to start an investigation into wastewater discharge license holders. There are 400 license holders across the state, with 165 of those being municipalities.

If the city is found to be in violation and a consent agreement is reached with the Maine Attorney General’s Office, a fine could be imposed. It’s too early to know how much.

The city met April 12 with DEP representatives to discuss the issue. The main concerns are wastewater treatment and reducing combined sewer overflows.

“Since and including the last major upgrade of the water pollution control facility in 1998, the city has completed at least 15 wastewater collection projects at a cost of over $17 million,” said Pinto after the meeting.

To Pinto, Rockland has invested more in its sewer system per resident than other area towns.

The city formed a new division this year to maintain and upgrade its sewer system. Two new employees were hired and television inspection equipment has been ordered to check lines for leaks that allow stormwater to enter the sewer lines.

The equipment, which cost $140,304, consists of a 3-inch camera attached to a 2-foot-long tractor that is put into the sewer line and is monitored from a trailer. Pinto said the camera is so sharp that it can spot a cricket in a line. The camera records video in a digital format.

When there are leaks in the lines, many of which are more than 100 years old, too much water is sent to the treatment plant and the state claims that the volume overwhelms the plant, causing water to be treated insufficiently. Pinto said that is not uncommon considering its age, and the city plans to spend another $5 million in improvements.

The sewer department is paid for through user fees. If investments are made, rates might have to be increased.

Mayor William Clayton said that while the potential action against the city is a concern, Pinto has a great track record and he is confident that something can be worked out with the regulatory agencies.

Stephen Betts can be contacted at sbetts@bangordailynews.com or on Twitter @Scoopbetts.

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