Friday, February 10, 2006

U.S. Attorney Strikes Again: Nails Company for Violations at New Haven's & Norwalk's Sewage Plants

The U.S. prosecutor who is sending Mark Easter to jail for dumping raw sewage from the Fishers Island ferries has also successfully prosecuted the company that runs the sewage treatment plants in Norwalk and New Haven, for treatment violations.

No one is going to jail though. The U.S. Attorney’s office, under Kevin J. O’Connor, agreed essentially to put them on probation for two years and to make them pay a $2 million fine that will go toward water quality improvements and environmental education.

Technically the attorney’s office and the company, Operations Management International, have entered into a “deferred prosecution agreement.” If OMI keeps out of trouble for two years and institutes a bunch of changes in its operation nationwide, they’re off the hook.

What did OMI do in New Haven and Norwalk? To me it seems like their offenses weren’t huge – in fact in Norwalk, the offense seems to have been caused by an eagerness to reduce nitrogen, which is the key goal of the overall Long Island Sound cleanup – but they neglected to report them correctly, and that pissed O’Connor and his assistants off.

The problem in New Haven had to do with chlorine. The treated wastewater that the plant discharges into the Sound must, according to its state permit, contain no more than 1.5 milligrams of chlorine per liter but no less than 0.2 mg/l (presumably this is because too much chlorine could kill micro-organisms in the Sound and too little would be an indication that proper disinfection of the wastewater isn’t taking place).

If the plant operators test the chlorine discharge more often than the permit requires, they must include the additional tests in their regular reports. The plant operators also must make sure that any chlorine test results it submits are representative of the actual chlorine conditions (presumably this is to make sure that if you get a lot of results that show chlorine levels are too high, and one result that shows it’s not too high, you don’t submit that result and try to pass it off as representative).

At the New Haven plant, chlorine apparently was fed into the wastewater manually. But that’s an imprecise method, and chlorine levels sometimes fell out of the 1.5-0.2 mg/l range. Occasionally when that happened, plant managers discarded the samples and directed workers to take additional samples. Unfortunately for OMI, you’re not allowed to do that. The New Haven plant also took samples improperly when they measured biochemical oxygen demand, or BOD, which is a measure of how much dissolved oxygen will be removed from the Sound when organic particles in the wastewater decay.

In Norwalk, as I mentioned, the violation stemmed from an eagerness to do as much nitrogen removal as possible. Nitrogen removal requires that sewage sludge be kept in the plant for longer than it usually would. Bacteria grow in the sludge, and by controlling the amount of oxygen in the sludge, plant operators can control the types and amounts of nitrogen-eating bacteria. Eventually the sludge is taken away (and burned I think, although they might do something else with it) and the wastewater discharged, in this case in the Norwalk River, upstream from the harbor and the Sound.

Apparently in an effort to increase the amount of nitrogen removal, the plant operators kept more sludge in the tank than they should have, and the sludge spilled out into river, more than once. That’s not the worst thing that can happen at a sewage plant, but it’s a permit violation nonetheless, and the Norwalk plant operators compounded the problem by not reporting it.

Managers at both the New Haven and Norwalk plants have been reassigned by OMI. The manual chlorine feeder at the New Haven plant has been replaced with an automated system. OMI also has agreed to give $1 million to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, in New London, to fund an Endowed Chair of Environmental Studies; and $1 million “to the Greater New Haven Water Pollution Control Authority (WPCA), New Haven, Connecticut, to fund one or more of specific facility and environmental improvement projects and to the Long Island Sound Fund and/or Study, if funds remain available.”

I should add here that I wrote admiringly and at some length about the Norwalk plant, and in particular of its nitrogen removal program, in the last chapter of my book. One of the managers who was reassigned was Fred Treffeisen, who I singled out for praise and for his commitment to improving the treatment process at a plant that had been neglected for decades.

Here’s the U.S. Attorney’s press release; here’s the deferred prosecution agreement; and here’s the Stamford Advocate story.

And I've written about the wider implications at Gristmill, here.


Blogger Sam said...

Well written, Tom, I could actually understand it (although I'm still confused about dissolved oxygen versus BOD). What can I say, I'm a clean air head.

I was burned one time too. When at the state I wrote a special permit for the Alco Rockdale Unit in Texas as a revision to the State Implementation Plan. As a condition to finalizing the document, I insisted on prior agreement with EPA and a big, multi-media environmental inspection.

Alcoa passed it with flying colors.

It wasn't quite three years later when I went into private consulting and ... Alcoa agreed to paying millions of dollars for violating the Clean Air Act. On my shift. It was rather hard to take.

8:07 PM  

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