By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, MONDAY, JULY 14, 2014) — THE PLANET has learned new information about the recent sewage spill into the Housatonic River and adjacent farm land at the water department treatment plant on Industrial Drive off of Holmes Road.
Some of the information confirms what we earlier reported, some adds details to what we reported, and some is new information. In this updated version of events, obtained from a pastiche of sources, water superintendent Carl Shaw was faced with a tough decision on the evening-morning of June 26-27, the night of the torrential downpour.
First, some backgrounder from this layman who went to school in H2O with expert teachers.
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Updates and then a Lag
Once upon a time, Pittsfield had no official water treatment station. The city first began treating its water in 1902, when the first plant was built roughly in the same location where it is now. As advances in municipal water treatment hit the market, the city went through a series of upgrades, in 1915, 1936-37, 1963, 1975-76, 1985, and 1989. Each incorporated new technology. At some point, however, the city fell far behind in maintenance required to keep a municipal waste-water and treatment system operating at its best practical efficiency.
If you think about it, the sewer system is buried, and the treatment plant rests on a bucolic piece of land about four miles from downtown — Out of sight, out of mind, and out of the budgeting process. Thus, while Pittsfield year after year caved into its public employee unions, particularly in the school department, not enough money went into the hidden but vital function of water, particularly with regard to its sewer lines.
A Hobson’s Choice, and It Had Nothing to Do with Butch
Shaw, as waste water superintendent, is in charge of the plant. Seven sewage pumping stations throughout the city augment the main plant. Overflows, sources say, have been occurring since the 1960s.
When you have heavy rain, the increase in water flow to the treatment plant can overcharge the city’s sewer lines. When the flow to the main sewer pumps in the Pump and Power Building exceeds the capacity of the pumps, the sewer gate has to come down. If not, the building floods. Planet operators also have to be concerned about the aeration tanks and secondary clarifier system. On the other hand, the operator must not lower the sewer gate too soon, which would substantially cut short the plant’s ability to process flow. When heavy rain comes, the decision to lower the gate or not and when is crucial and requires a tricky balancing act for operators.
Compounding the problem is the patch-work nature of the sewer lines themselves. Some of Pittsfield’s sewers date back to the late 19th century, the kind of brickwork one would associate with Jack the Ripper‘s foggy-dew London.
On an average day, the water plant processes an average of 12 million gallons. Sources say, though, that during downpours, snowmelt, or other unusual wet weather, that flow can go from six million gallons to 25 million in five or six hours. Naturally, heavy rains of the kind that came through Pittsfield on June 26-27 will result in flow surge.
At that point, sources say, the manager at the plant has to make a Hobson’s Choice, where neither option is ideal but where circumstances will dictate which one is less objectionable. The manager can order the main sewer gate to be lowered or let the overflow reach the plant. The main sewer gate at the water plant is a 72-inch main sewer line that comes into the wastewater treatment plant enters from the north. It passes through a main sewer gate in the Pump and Power building. The gate is kind of a last resort to be used when events surcharge the line. If the operator judges the overflow will endanger the Pump and Power Building, the gate should be lowered.
“The superintendent has to make a decision,” as one source put it. “Does he put the gate down [to reduce inflow] or take a chance of losing the pump and power building?”
The state EPA has set a flow ceiling limit of 28.7 million gallons, although sources familiar with plant operations say that limit is sometimes ignored so workers can pump as much water as possible to prevent overflows. Pumping too much water, though, risks “washing out the upper end” of the plant. Essentially, that jeopardizes the three aeration tanks in the plant, two of which run in low-flow conditions and the third in high flow. The tanks carry colonies of bacteria that convert ammonia from run-off water into nitrates and nitrites. This keep harmful ammonia out of the Housatonic River.
Was There Negligence? That’s a Question for the EPA
To the all important question: Did the manager at the plant at the time of the June 26-27 downpour do anything wrong? Could alternative actions that weren’t taken have prevented the overflow?
We put this question to our water experts. Each said that, since they lacked primary information and are not privy to the state’s investigation of the event, they couldn’t be sure. They tended to think, though, that Shaw did the best he could with what he had.
One source put it this way: “Keeping in mind that if you’re not actually there at the time, you can’t know for sure what happened, I don’t think it was negligence on Carl Shaw’s part. When you get storm surges, you have to do the best you can to protect the lower buildings. Offices for the water department are located there, as well as the pump and power buildings on the north side of the facility. Nobody wants an overflow.”
As THE PLANET has reported, the sewer overflow has been reported to the state Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has begun an investigation. We also learned that in the event of an “SSO” — sanitary sewer overflow — the city is required to notify the federal Department of Environmental Protection. THE PLANET has not confirmed that the DEP was notified, though it appears to be the case.
Sources agree that immediate causes of the most recent overflow aside, the underlying causes stem back to lack of proper maintenance over time. Simply put, the sewer lines are too old, and for years, the city didn’t do enough to address the situation.
What would have been a lesser problem to fix then has become a bigger one now. An I & I study (inflow and infiltration) done about seven years ago identified areas in the city with I & I higher than normal. Sources say the city has been slow to implement the recommendations. The city is now trying to implement sewer-system improvements, with some of the work slated for this year. Is that work enough?
THE PLANET also learned that the “farm land” affected by the recent overflow does not include Abby Farm off Holmes Road. Actually, the state owns what used to be the affected farmland, which lies closer to the planet. The Commonwealth is responsible for the land management there, which would explain its keen interest in the latest overflow event.
In fairness to Shaw, at this point, it appears that Mother Nature caught him in her fury and gave the city’s antiquated sewer lines too much, too soon. That’s the best information we have about the June 26-27 overflow. The state’s investigation into the event will likely produce a more definitive verdict.
In Pittsfield, Water, Too, Is Politics
One other observation can be safely offered at this point. In Pittsfield, water, like just about everything else, is a political commodity first, before it can be anything else.
One hears accusations from all sides about the building of the plant, the maintenance, the management there, the workers, and everything else related to operations or policy. This can stand as the exemplification of the territorialism and turf wars that have vexed the city for a generation, with no end in sight.
What should be a straightforward event amenable to straightforward reporting becomes an inkblot test among competing narratives. With respect to the decisions made on June 26-27, and more strategically in the long term, at the head of this melodrama of competing versions stands the city’s public works director, Bruce Collingwood.
Fans says he’s the best thing to hit Pittsfield since George “Boomer” Scott in 1965. Foes blame him for many of the woes they say have been all too common in the delivery of the services that operate through Pittsfield public works system. Which is it?
There can be no doubt that the “politicization of water” stands as the biggest factor in keeping the city’s handling of this life-giving material from being remotely as good as it can be.
(THREE STOOGES, PLAYING POKER) LARRY: “I’ll take two.” MOE: “You can’t have two, porcupine, but I can give you five.” (MORE SLAPS LARRY ACROSS THE KISSER) — Moe Howard and Larry Fine, in a delightfully generic (or should be say “classic” or “iconic”) Stooges gag, used well more than once.
“OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLIE.”
LOVE TO ALL.