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Wet spring led to April wastewater overflow

ST. AGATHA, Maine — Town officials continue to address issues with the municipal sewer system, including overflows of partially treated wastewater in April, problems with aging pumps and infiltration of groundwater into collection lines.

Town Manager Aubrie Michaud said Wednesday that the town has been in touch with most of the homeowners who have leaking pipes connecting their homes to the main sewer lines. It is leaks like these that contribute to “inflow and infiltration,” or I&I, problems.

The town has in the past few years addressed I&I issues in the main lines and connecting pipes it oversees. Homeowners are responsible for the lines that connect their homes to the community system.

This spring, the town reported two overflow events to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. Although the town sends its wastewater to a facility in Frecheville and no longer treats its own wastewater, it maintains several pumping stations, the largest of which is located between the Town Office and the fire station.

On April 7 and 11, pumps at that station released approximately 96 thousand gallons, each time, of partially treated wastewater from the pump station to the ground nearby, according to DEP.

This was done to avoid damage to the pump station from uncontrolled overflows which can erode and undermine the structure and the ground around it, said Bill Sheehan with the DEP.   

Much of this overflow would have flowed overland and likely entered a small stream nearby, which feeds into Long Lake, Sheehan said in an email to the St. John Valley Times.

The volume of the overflow events in St. Agatha are an estimate, based on the maximum capacity of the pumps and the time they pumped (five hours), as reported by town officials, according to Sheehan.

Former town manager Gary Picard was supervising the operation at the time, as the community did not have a sewer operator or supervisor.

“We have done extensive work to fix these issues,” Michaud said.

“We’ve spent close to $20,000 this summer to address the issues,” the chair of the town’s board of selectmen, Beurmond Banville, said Monday. That amount is on top of the nearly $80,000 the town spent last year on sewer line infrastructure work, he said.

“We had problems,” Banville conceded, but added that the town notified DEP about the spills in April and since has been working to fix the issues and replace the oldest parts of the town’s wastewater collection system.

One of the two 175-gallon-per-minute pumps is currently out of service and will be replaced, with the new unit expected before the end of September, according to the town’s new sewer operator, Andre Gendreau. The second pump will also be replaced, he said.

Michaud said the cost of these repairs has led to a slight increase in the quarterly sewer rates, from $112.50 to $125 per home.

“It was a bad spring for this sort of thing. We had very little frozen ground (thanks to early snow last November) which allowed a lot of the spring snowmelt to infiltrate the ground and cause the groundwater levels to increase,” Sheehan said.

Such high water levels often infiltrate into any places there are leaks in the sewer lines, manholes and other parts of the collection systems.  

“In this region alone, six other town treatment plants had bypasses or other high-flow-related events in April,” said Sheehan.

Banville said he heard that other communities had the worst inflow and infiltration issues this past spring than they had seen in many years, if not ever.

Following notification of the overflow by the town, DEP sent a letter to St. Agatha regarding the bypass and requesting follow-up. Sheehan said the town has cooperated with the department and continues to keep them abreast of changes being made to address issues.

Sheehan said DEP did not assess the town a fine or other penalty because of the overflow. There is no public notification required of such overflow events, Sheehan added, and the neither the department nor the town felt it necessary to do so.

Licensed wastewater treatment facilities are required to provide notice within 24 hours of wastewater discharges/overflows from a location other than those specified in the license, according to Sheehan.

Some facilities, such as in Fort Kent, regularly use controlled overflow events in the spring of the year, when systems are taxed the most, he said. In the case of Fort Kent, those overflows are sent to the St. John River, where the high and fast-flowing spring waters effectively dilute the temporary discharge.

Some of these reported discharges may not have impacted a nearby water body,, but need to be reported even if the wastewater was spilled to the ground and didn’t reach a waterbody, Sheehan said.

DEP has no overflow reporting requirement for unlicensed facilities, like septic systems or private/commercial establishments or the pump stations in St. Agatha. The department learns of such events via voluntary reports or complaints.

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