Litigation, pollution dogging Lewes

January 24, 2020

The costly and contentious lawsuit filed by the Lewes Board of Public Works against the Lewes Mayor and Council in 2019 cast a shadow over the community. That shadow darkened over the Christmas holidays.

A malfunction at the BPW’s visually prominent wastewater treatment facility in the middle of town resulted in the release of an estimated 5 million gallons of partially treated sewage into the neighboring marsh and Lewes-Rehoboth Canal.

In response, the state closed shellfishing areas in Delaware Bay for 21 days. Had the problem occurred in the summer, when there’s far more shellfishing and beach activity, impacts would have been worse.

Investigations are underway to determine the ultimate cause of the malfunctions. In the meantime, the problem has been fixed with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of repairs involving refurbished and new replacement filters. The state has already signaled that the problem constitutes a violation of Lewes’ permit to discharge treated wastewater into the canal. Fines may result.

The most disturbing part is that more than three years ago, the former operator of the treatment plant, Severn Trent, informed the BPW that the filters were near the end of their life expectancy and recommended buying new filters.

“These units have a long lead time and [Severn Trent] recommends ordering these so that they can be on hand for replacement when the others fail,” the 2016 recommendation reads.

It was a prudent and, as it unfortunately turns out, a prescient recommendation. But it wasn’t acted on until after 5 million gallons of partially treated wastewater polluted the marsh and adjacent waters. That was because a system malfunction led to the failure of filters already beyond their expiration date, compounded by the long lead time required for emergency replacements to arrive.

The Lewes public can ask questions at a joint City of Lewes and Board of Public Works meeting tentatively set at 6 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 29, in the Rollins Community Center meeting room.

The entire situation leaves the impression that a distracted Board of Public Works took a chance on risking the natural environment to squeeze more life out of aging critical equipment – and lost.


  • Editorials are considered and written by Cape Gazette Editorial Board members, including Publisher Chris Rausch, Editor Jen Ellingsworth, News Editor Nick Roth and reporters Ron MacArthur and Chris Flood. 

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