Plant failure reveals need for transparency

December 31, 2019

The beginning of a new year and a new decade inspires us to take stock, set new goals and challenge ourselves to make changes. In the wake of a significant failure at the Lewes wastewater plant, that process should be well underway.

For days, partially treated wastewater had to be diverted to holding tanks and then released into the marsh – a failure significant enough to close shellfish harvesting areas in Delaware Bay.

That alone will make many wonder just how safe it ever is to fish in bay waters –  let alone swim in those waters come summer.

A problem at the plant was first reported Dec. 19, when plant operators White Marsh Environmental Services, an affiliate of Tidewater Utilities, told Lewes Board of Public Works officials a minor malfunction had occurred. Two of the plant’s four filtering troughs had been forced out of service.

But on Dec. 21, an “accident” occurred; then, something else at the plant malfunctioned. A meter or a control panel failed; to date, no one knows exactly what.

It wasn’t until Dec. 23, BPW officials say, that they realized how serious the problem was. 

It was serious, closing down all four filtering troughs.

Replacement filters, ordered from Canada, did not arrive until Dec. 27.

The plant finally went back online Dec. 28, nine days after the original incident.

As we go to press Dec. 30, the “accident,” which involved an injury, has not been identified, and state officials have issued no statement beyond shellfish harvesting restrictions, which continue for 21 more days.

This is not good enough.

Were safety measures adequate? Shouldn’t emergency filters have been available? Shouldn’t this plant have a better backup plan than releasing effluent into the marsh? Are fines on the way?

BPW, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and Tidewater officials owe the public a full explanation of what happened and how they will ensure they are prepared should it happen again.

This problem all began as a minor malfunction in the winter with schools on break.

What if it were a serious problem on July 4?


  • Editorials are considered by the editorial board and written by Dennis Forney, Publisher Emeritus, with occasional contributions from other board members: Trish Vernon, CoPublisher and Editor; Dave Frederick, Sports Editor Emeritus; Jen Ellingsworth, Associate Editor; Nick Roth, Sports Editor; and Chris Rausch, CoPublisher and General Manager.

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