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Fort Kent wastewater pump replaced, but river advisory remains in effect for now

FORT KENT, Maine — Operators of the town’s water and sewage treatment facility have replaced the broken pump that forced them to temporarily divert wastewater into the Fish River on Tuesday.

But a Maine Department of Environmental Protection advisory cautioning people to avoid contact with the contaminated water of the Fish River, and the St. John River into which it feeds remains in effect for the time being.

The DEP issued the advisory Tuesday morning after the wastewater pump broke down following a torrential rainstorm in the area, forcing the wastewater diversion.

The wastewater was pretreated with chlorine at the town’s primary pump station where solid material was removed from the sewage before the wastewater was released into the river, according to Fort Kent Water and Wastewater Department Director Mark Soucy.

The town was operating an auxiliary pump at the time because their primary pump was damaged during flooding in the town this past April, Soucy said Wednesday. The primary pump was downstate being repaired and expected to be delivered to Fort Kent next week, he said.

The back up pump broke down Tuesday following a storm that poured 1.6 inches of rain over the area in less than an hour, Soucy said. The town began pumping the chlorinated sewage water into the river at 11 a.m.

After being informed of the problem, workers with Stevens Electric and Pump Service out of Monmouth headed up to Fort Kent with the repaired primary pump Tuesday to install it, according to Soucy. By 6:30 p.m. that evening, the town stopped discharging the pre-treated sewage into the Fish River.

“Approximately 72,000 gallons of treated wastewater was released over the course of 7 and a half hours. A lot of this isn’t toilet water; it included some drain water and some water from people’s cellars” Interim Town Manager and Police Chief Tom Pelletier said Wednesday. “At 140 pounds of actual sludge, our dumping of wastewater was minimal.”

Maine DEP officials have since conducted tests on samples they obtained from the river waters, the results of which should be available sometime Thursday afternoon, according to DEP Regional Director Nick Archer. The officials are testing for E.coli bacteria.

“We are still cautioning everybody, but the fact that (the wastewater is no longer being dumped into the river now that the pump is repaired) makes the situation much, much better,”  Archer said Wednesday.

The advisory cautions people not to drink from the rivers, eat vegetation caught or picked near the rivers, or to swim or have physical contact with water from either river.

The warning is in effect for anyone living along the river east of Fort Kent, including through Madawaska and Van Buren.

Archer said that people living west of where the Fish River dumps into the St. John in Fort Kent would be safe to continue contact with the water in the river.

Tap water in Fort Kent does not come from either river, so is safe to drink, according to Soucy.

The International Muskie Derby which is scheduled to start Friday will continue as planned.

“There should be no problem with the fishing derby,” Archer said.

He added that it is possible the advisory will be lifted Thursday, although he can only confirm that once the results of the river water testing become available.

Pelletier affirmed that the Muskie Derby will not be adversely affected by Tuesday’s incident.

“It will absolutely have no effect on the muskie derby. The situation is under control. At this time the water quality is being evaluated from Fort Kent all the way down to Van Buren,” he said. “We had heavy downpours which assisted in extra dilution of that concentrate. No solid particles were released in the treated wastewater.”

Pelletier also said that town employees and the DEP worked well to ensure the public’s safety.

“This is not uncommon at all for many towns throughout the state (to dump wastewater into bodies of water during such situations) and our exposure has been extremely minimal. We have an extremely well trained group of individuals who handled this very professionally to minimize any exposure and to not jeopardize the public health when they released this 72,000 gallons of treated wastewater into two large bodies of water.”

Pelletier also indicated that the auxiliary pump is now being repaired and will be replaced as soon as possible so there is a backup in place.

Archer said he notified his counterparts in Canada about the wastewater issue as soon as it became known to him on Tuesday.

“I have a counterpart who is a regional director in the Grand Falls, New Brunswick, office (of Environmental New Brunswick) and we’ve known each other for a long time. We communicate regularly on issues that concern both sides of the border; if something happens on that side he notifies me, and if something happens on this side, I notify him. We do that right away,” Archer said.  

The DEP official said he is unaware of another action the town could have undertaken when the wastewater pump failed, other than to release the partially treated wastewater into the river.

“It appeared to us the Fort Kent wastewater operators were doing everything they possibly could with what they had to work with,” he said.

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