October 24, 2018
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What midcoast communities are doing to stop raw sewage from flowing into the ocean

Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Camden, Maine

Since floating the possibility of heavy fines, Camden wastewater department officials have significantly reduced the number of properties that need to be inspected for illegal hookups to the town’s sewer lines.

Improper flow from homes and businesses can increase the risk of the wastewater system being overwhelmed during major rain events in ways that could harm the environment.

Since town officials posted the names of property owners — and their address — last month, the number of property owners who have not scheduled an inspection dropped from about 200 to 34.

For the remaining property owners who have not allowed inspections of their properties, a notice of violation letter will be issued Nov. 9. While town officials have yet to make a decision if steep fines will follow the violation letters, Camden Town Manager Audra Caler-Bell said they’re more interested in the injunctive relief these violation letters could bring.

“The monetary fine, we’re not interested in that. Really, the court action for us, the injunctive relief, would be the most important part of that because that allows us to enter someone’s home and undertake the survey,” Caler-Bell said.

Camden Wastewater Superintendent Dave Bolstrage said inspectors scour for problems such as sump pumps or floor drains that are hooked into the town’s sewer lines, rather than the storm water system. These illegal hookups add additional water to the system, which can contribute to overflows at the town’s wastewater pumps during major rain events, causing a mixture of raw sewage and storm water to flow into the harbor.

More than 100 hookups that violate the town’s sewer ordinance have been found through inspections, which town officials started conducting about three summers ago, Bolstrage said.

As Camden officials prepare to send out violation letters to unresponsive property owners, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is readying to send the town a violation letter of its own.

Department of Environmental Protection Water Enforcement Manager Pam Parker said Camden officials, especially since Bolstrage took over as superintendent, have been making good strides in finding and correcting potential overflow contributors in the sewer system, such as illegal hookups.

State environmental regulators have cited the town for violations in the past. Parker said the sewer overflows that have occured in Camden have been large, with tens of thousands of gallons overflowing per event, adding up to more than a million gallons.

Aside from illegal hookups, these overflows can be caused by leaks in the system that allow stormwater into the sewer pipes. Parker said Camden is not alone in having problems with excess water in its sewer systems.

“It’s very common,” Parker said. “Very, very common for towns to have this with their sewer systems.”

Across the state, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection has identified about $1 billion in sewer infrastructure needs. Camden’s sewer system was upgraded in the 1970s, according to Bolstrage, so it fares better than many communities. In Bangor, most of the city’s sewer infrastructure is more than a century old, and the city has been working to fund a $60 million upgrade of the system over the next 15 years to stop overflows into the Penobscot River from occurring.

It’s been several years since Camden last received a violation notice, Parker said, and it’s the first formal step in an enforcement process before the DEP issues a consent agreement to which the town must adhere to correct documented violations.

Bolstrage said since he took over as superintendent in 2014, the wastewater department has been conducting a review of Camden’s 17 miles of sewer lines, looking for potential leaks. While some minor leaks have been found and corrected, Bolstrage said no major leaks have been found.

“So far, I haven’t found any big infiltration on the collection system, but we still have a lot more to inspect,” Bolstrage said.

Just a few miles down Route 1, the city of Rockland has been working under a DEP consent agreement for years to separate it’s combined sewer and stormwater collection system, Parker said.

City officials are hoping that work can start either within the next few weeks, or at the latest next spring, on a long planned sewer separation project in the city’s south end, according to Rockland City Manager Tom Luttrell.

With much of the city’s sewer infrastructure still combined with stormwater collection, Luttrell said separation projects are undertaken when funding is available.

“We’ve got plenty that we can do, we just don’t have the funding,” Luttrell said.

The pending south end project has been planned since the early 2000s, when sewer separation work was being conducted in a nearby part of the city, Luttrell said, but funding was not available then.

Whenever a road project is planned, Luttrell said city officials look at whether the sewer collection lines in that area have been separated. If funding is available, they’ll undertake the separation project.

With the Maine Department of Transportation having an upcoming road construction project planned for a portion of the south end, sewer separation in that area has been revisited.

However, the lone bid the city received for the project came in at $2,137,506 — about $600,000 more than the price tag city officials expected.

Luttrell said they’re working with the contractor to shave some of the cost so they can go forward with the project.

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