Sewer plant cleanup to take months as it struggles with pollution levels

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The Binghamton-Johnson City Joint Sewage Treatment Plant is still cleaning up after a rupture in a concrete basin caused a portion of the facility to flood with wastewater last month. (Vaughn Golden/WSKG)

VESTAL, NY (WSKG) — Officials overseeing the Binghamton-Johnson City Joint Sewage Treatment plant predict a lengthy and costly cleanup and restoration process lies ahead after partially treated wastewater flooded part of the facility last month.

Though the plant is continuing its primary treatment process, the quality of effluent released into the Susquehanna River is suffering. The plant’s superintendent said Tuesday that the facility is unable to keep some pollutants going into the river below permitted levels.

We’re trying to protect that river with anything that we have,” Binghamton Johnson City Joint Sewage Treatment Plant Superintendent Elliott Wagner told the board overseeing the facility.

According to a monthly report presented by Wagner, levels of total settleable solids are above the limit. Other measures including ammonia and total suspended solids also spiked last month in the aftermath of the plant malfunction.

Wagner also confirmed Tuesday that the situation was not caused by a pipe burst, as plant officials and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation had initially reported.

A flooded portion of the Binghamton-Johnson City Joint Sewage Treatment Plant. (Photo provided by a sewer plant employee who requested to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution.)

Shortly after 5 a.m. on Feb. 18, a window on the side of one of the large concrete basins used during the treatment process detached, causing the facility to quickly flood with wastewater. The plant was processing at a rate of 62 million gallons per day at the time, according to Wagner.

“When that water flooded that room, it lifted the HVAC unit up and snapped a two inch gas line,” Wagner said. “We were extremely lucky that something even worse didn’t happen here.”

Nobody was hurt during the incident.

Nearly three weeks after the burst, Wagner said much of the below-ground part of the facility that was flooded still needs to be cleaned out. He said plant operators have cleared over 64 tons of solids out of the building as of last week. They’ve also installed emergency lighting and taken other steps to help prepare the space for deep cleaning, but that much of the work needed to be contracted out.

Wagner asked the joint sewage board for more urgency and less time spent deliberating about insurance and legal matters while the plant is still operating in an emergency situation.

“That’s taking valuable time,” Wagner said. “This is day 19. This is an emergency. Please, people need to act like it’s an emergency.”

The board voted Tuesday to authorize a $350,000 contract between the plant and ServPro, a restoration and cleanup service, to provide a 26-person crew to carry out the remaining cleaning needed.

The board also approved a provision allowing the plant superintendent to enter into agreements for commodities, professional services and public works contracts outside the normal procurement processes that normally require competitive bidding or other measures. Under the resolution, Wagner is only granted that power for procurement related to the areas affected by the burst and while a declaration of emergency exists at the plant. The board declared an emergency at a special meeting last month which expires July 1.

Wagner did not estimate the total cost of damages to the plant, which is almost entirely brand new following a nearly $278 million restoration project that began shortly after a catastrophic wall collapse and flood in 2011.

Wagner pointed out that a significant amount of electrical components, over 100 valve actuators, and other major pieces of equipment like the HVAC system will need to be replaced. He said just the cost of some of the electrical panels alone would be $300,000 before installation costs.

Wagner said it could be months before the plant is back to its previous condition.

Tuesday’s meeting also brought a potential brewing political disagreement between the board’s Johnson City and Binghamton factions. Chris Papastrat, a board member appointed by Binghamton’s mayor, moved to nominate Edward Crumb, another Binghamton appointee, as the board’s chairman beginning next month.

For the last few years, the chairman position has rotated back and forth each year between a Johnson City member and a Binghamton member.

After the first nomination, Steve Andrews nominated fellow Johnson City appointee George Kolba to keep his position as chair for another year. Both sides then deadlocked in a vote, effectively punting the matter until next month.