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Village Council— Could sewer woes limit growth?

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Strong storms rolled into Yellow Springs on April 3, 2018, dumping close to three inches of rain on the village in short order.

What happened next was the source of an Ohio EPA rebuke and is now a subject of concern for Village Council as it considers spurring new development in town.

Simply put, the deluge overwhelmed the Village’s wastewater treatment abilities. With rainwater rapidly infiltrating sanitary sewer lines, the flow was too much to process.

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As a result, over two days, 1.26 million gallons of untreated wastewater went straight into Yellow Springs Creek and the Little Miami River.

And the problem continued in 2019, with water flows exceeding the plant’s designed capacity for the first six months of the year.

The challenges at the Village’s wastewater treatment plant were aired at both Council’s retreat on Jan. 15 and at its Jan. 21 regular meeting. At times, the issues were discussed in connection with ongoing infill development and possible new housing development on the Village-owned Glass Farm and elsewhere.

For Council member Laura Curliss, the condition of the wastewater treatment system is an “impediment to development.”

Without progress, Curliss said she wouldn’t support any new housing development in town.

“How can we keep sending sanitary [waste] to our plant that can’t handle it?” she said.

Council Vice President Marianne MacQueen echoed such worries at Council’s retreat, saying, “The need to fix the sanitary sewer system is critical.”

But MacQueen also suggested that development at the Glass Farm is still at least two years away.

And Village staff shared several steps they are now taking to reduce how much water gets into sanitary sewer lines, with hopes of improving the situation as soon as possible.

At Council’s Jan. 22 meeting, Village Manager Josué Salmerón said the sewer challenges are an “ongoing issue” dating back many years, but one which the Village is now taking more seriously.

“It’s an issue we are tackling head on,”  he said.

EPA questions new development

It was during his first week on the job that Salmerón received a letter from the Ohio EPA following a recent inspection of the Village’s wastewater treatment facilities.

Dated June 11, 2019, the letter details the agency’s findings from a May 2019 inspection, noting “significant sewage bypasses” from the Village’s pump station located on U.S. 68 across from the Bryan Center.

“These bypasses are occurring during rain events that communities should typically be able to convey to their [wastewater treatment plant],” the EPA letter added.

EPA inspector Ned Sarle also raised concerns about a new senior housing facility, but erroneously listed the projected size at 500 people (there are slated to be 54 units). Still, the EPA worries that the local sanitary sewer system might not be able to accommodate new development.

“With the past effluent violations and bypasses from the sewage collection and treatment system, the Village may not have the capacity to handle this new development,” Sarle wrote.

“We would encourage the Village to consider carefully any future development and the need to upgrade either your sewage collection and/or treatment system,” he continued.

Treatment plant at capacity?

According to Village and EPA figures, the Village’s wastewater plant, located along Grinnell Road across from Glen Helen, appears to be at, or beyond, its capacity.

Average flows through the Village’s wastewater treatment plant over the last five years have been 550,000 gallons per day, while the system is only designed to treat 600,000 gallons per day, according to the EPA letter.

But in the last two years, the average has actually been more than 600,0000 gpd, according to Village Water and Wastewater Superintendent Brad Ault in an interview with the News this week.

“Our average flows for the year have been going higher and higher over the last few years,” Ault said.

In fact, from last January through June, the daily average flows at the plant exceeded its capacity, peaking at 1.6 million gallons in February 2019, more than 2.5 times what the plant is designed to treat. Last year’s overall daily average at the plant was 657,392 gallons, according to Village figures.

Those high flows led to two Ohio EPA violations last summer, when E. coli tested above regulatory limits, according to Ault.

Ault said that the high flows are probably not a result of more development, with the possible exception of local medical marijuana producer Cresco Labs, a large water user.

“The town really hasn’t grown that much,” he said.

Instead, the increases are mainly a result of water infiltrating the system during high rain events.

“When we get about one inch of rain, our flows go up from an average of 350,000 per day to over a one million gallons per day,” he said.

Addressing ‘infiltration and inflow’

Honing in on the problem, Ault believes poor maintenance of aging sewer infrastructure is what now leads to rainwater inundating the local plant and lift station.

One technique which can repair leaks and restore the integrity of sewer pipes is sliplining, Ault explained.

“The Village for years did not do a lot of sliplining sewers and maintaining sewers so there’s infiltration getting in and the flow is just getting higher with rain events,”  he said.

But that may be starting to change. The Village sliplined 11,000 feet of sewers last year, with plans to do more in 2020.

At the Jan. 22 Council meeting,  Village Public Works Director Johnnie Burns detailed other recent activities aimed at reducing what’s known as “infiltration and inflow,” or “I and I.”

Those activities included replacing old manhole covers, moving manholes to higher elevations, cleaning out sewer traps, “jetting” sewer lines to clean them, pumping an herbicide through sewer lines to kill any tree roots growing into them and using a camera to find leaks in the local lines.

With 30 miles of combined sanitary and stormwater lines, the Village is focusing on the worst areas, added Salmerón in a later interview.

In addition, Ault said that recent upgrades at the lift station along U.S. 68, which handles about 75% of local wastewater flows, have improved that facility’s ability to deal with large volumes of water.

Ault is hopeful that increased efforts will turn the tide on the problem.

“I think it will get better now that people see there are issues with the lack of maintenance,” he said.

Past Village efforts

The Village’s struggles with wastewater bypassing the plant date back to at least 2007, when the facility was out of compliance with the EPA for failing to meet effluent limits. In 2008, the agency fined the Village $22,000 for the ongoing violations.

A $3 million upgrade to the wastewater treatment plant completed in 2011 allowed the facility to do two things: limit the phosphorus in its effluent and deal with large amounts of water during heavy rains, according to Ault.

The latter was accomplished by installing a new two-million gallon overflow basin adjacent to the plant, which catches and holds water during heavy rains, then later pumps the water up to the plant for treatment.

But while the basin has limited the number of times untreated sewage bypasses the local plant, it’s not a longterm solution, Ault said.

“That was essentially a Band-Aid to stop bypasses at the plant,” he said. “But when we get enough for days, that overflow can fill up.”

“The ultimate problem is the ‘I and I’ getting into the system,” he added.

At Council’s Jan. 22 meeting, other Village leaders agreed with that diagnosis. And as Salmerón noted, the Village’s recent efforts to repair sewer infrastructure are helping the situation, especially when the Village focuses on “high impact work” where conditions are the worst.

“We’re making continuous improvements to reduce infiltration and inflow into our system,” he said.

Other items from Council’s Jan. 15 retreat and Jan. 22 regular meeting will be in next week’s News.

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