Lewes BPW fined $64,000 for wastewater failure

Plant operator White Marsh Environmental Services will cover penalty
August 28, 2020

The Lewes Board of Public Works has been fined $64,000 by the state as a result of the major failure at its wastewater treatment plant in late December and early January. 

A malfunction in the American Legion Road facility resulted in 3.9 million gallons of partially treated wastewater being discharged into the marsh adjacent to the plant over several days.

“When you consider the upper limit of the fine could’ve been $400,000, I think DNREC recognized the actions that the BPW and White Marsh took to resolve the issue and mitigate it,” said Tom Panetta, the BPW member in charge of the root cause report.

A fine was not unexpected. DNREC’s notice of violation, issued Feb. 5, indicated fines were possible.

BPW General Manager Darrin Gordon said the $64,000 fine will be paid by plant operator White Marsh Environmental Services, a wholly owned subsidiary of Tidewater Utilities Inc. That was agreed upon as part of a settlement between the BPW and White Marsh, said BPW President Preston Lee.

“When this is all said and done, we have high confidence there is not going to be a harm to ratepayers of the Board of Public Works,” Gordon said.

Lee has proposed to DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin that the $64,000 fine be used for plant upgrades, but he has not received an answer yet. 

Due to the prolonged bypass and discharge of partially treated effluent into the marsh and Lewes-Rehoboth Canal, DNREC closed nearby shellfish harvest areas for 21 days as a precaution following the incident.

BPW hired an independent specialist to perform a wetlands evaluation, monitoring the marsh area for several months after the incident. The report is complete and the event appears to have had no adverse effects, Gordon said.

As part of the conciliation order from Garvin, BPW is also required to submit an update on the status of facility operations, an update to the emergency contingency plan detailing specific steps the facility will take to prevent a similar incident in the future, and the final wetland assessment. All submissions are required by Saturday, Sept. 5.

Panetta said he expects to have all three required submissions ready well before the deadline.

BPW and White Marsh have taken a number of actions to upgrade the wastewater treatment facility in the months since the incident.

BPW authorized the replacement of all four sets of filters at the plant, about $1 million in total. All filters have been installed.

In addition, Lee said there have been major upgrades to all control systems, alarm systems and printouts. White Marsh and BPW are also more closely monitoring the data available through the system, and White Marsh’s monthly reports to BPW have much more detail than was provided prior to the incident.

August incident anomaly

On Aug. 19, a spill of about 2,000 gallons of partially treated wastewater occurred at the wastewater treatment plant. White Marsh officials say it was an anomaly, and likely will not happen again.

Personnel from White Marsh worked with BPW to correct the issue, and the plant was returned to normal operation. Gordon said the oxidation ditch overflowed, and the spill was vacuumed up by Clean Delaware tankers.

Paul Peris, director of production and maintenance for Tidewater Utilities, said a power supply failed and sent an ethernet switch into a loop.

“It would not let it call out any information, and once it got to that state, the plant shut itself off,” he said. “When it locked down, it did not allow any of the alarms to get out to anybody to handle it. We didn’t know about it until staff showed up about 7:20 a.m.”

Exacerbating the issue was the more than an inch of rain that fell.

“Mother Nature made it look worse than it really was,” he said. “[The rain] didn’t make the efforts easy for us, but staff did a great job.”

DNREC was immediately notified of the incident by White Marsh, and DNREC visited the site and observed the cleanup.

White Marsh has provided a five-day report to DNREC, which is available to the public.

“We know what the issue was in terms of the broken part,” Peris said. “Now we’re working together and coming up with a backup to the backup system, which its only job is to get an alarm out [to staff].”


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