The city of Brewer will pay a $35,000 fine after a pump station clog sent more than a million gallons of wastewater into the Penobscot River, violating the city’s discharge permits.
The agreement with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which is not yet finalized, comes more than two years after the December 2018 violation, when pumps at Brewer’s wastewater treatment plant became clogged with wet wipes, rags and other debris. The clogging caused the pump station to fail, sending about 1.2 million gallons of untreated wastewater into the Penobscot River before the pipes were unclogged about a week later.
The city needed an outside contractor to drain the pumping station’s wet well — a chamber that collects wastewater before processing — and give employees access to the pipes, said Brewer Director of Environmental Services Ken Locke. He said rain and high temperatures that caused snowmelt worsened the situation.
The Brewer City Council approved the consent agreement on April 13. Locke, who has worked for the city for decades, said it was Brewer’s first settlement with the DEP since 1992.
People flushing non-dissolvable materials down toilets has long been an issue for wastewater systems nationwide. While toilet paper dissolves, materials such as rags and flushable wipes can easily plug up pipes. There were reports of an uptick in backed-up sewer lines amid a shortage of toilet paper at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.
The agreement has been a long time coming. Locke said he called the DEP the day the pump station failed and first received the consent decree from the agency around May 2019. Negotiations to lower the city’s fine have delayed its signing. The DEP originally wanted Brewer to pay $45,280, but lowered the fine by more than $10,000 after negotiations, Locke said.
Brewer installed a new $1.2 million pump station in May 2020 and has not had any problems with clogging since then, Locke said. While the city had set aside money for the new station, the city accelerated its design and construction process by two years after the December 2018 clog. The new pump station has a specific system in place to eject wipes before they can clog the system.
The consent agreement will now go before the Board of Environmental Protection, Locke said. The board is a seven-member panel that is part of the DEP, though it maintains independence from that agency.
After the board signs the agreement, it will put new requirements on Brewer officials, Locke said, such as that they report when pump stations become plugged and record how long it takes employees to respond.
Brewer is not the only Penobscot River community that has experienced sewage overflow problems. Bangor is in the midst of a multi-year project to install underground sewage overflow tanks to reduce raw wastewater overflows into the Penobscot River. The city is doing that work under a 2015 consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
A spokesperson for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection did not respond to a request for comment.