Rehoboth’s wastewater plant comes under fire

City officials say remedies hampered by lawsuit, possible fines
September 13, 2016

For the city of Rehoboth Beach, a brown, liquidy discharge has definitely hit the fan.

In July, discharge flowed from the wastewater treatment plant into the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal, and now city officials are scrambling to put together a temporary remedy, but their efforts, officials say, are hamstrung by a federal lawsuit and by environmental groups asking Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control to levy stiff penalties against the city.

City officials were given a notice of violation in August for the discharge, which was discovered by plant operators and reported, but was also reported by a citizen who photographed the discharge going into the canal.

A DNREC investigation shows filamentous bacteria caused problems at the treatment plant. Filamentous bacteria can be helpful, when present at the correct levels, in wastewater treatment because it helps break down solids in the effluent. However, too much filamentous bacteria creates bulking, when sludge that usually settles instead rises to the surface and is improperly discharged. DNREC’s investigation also showed the plant’s microscreens were not working.

Mayor Sam Cooper said the bulking problem has been brought under control, and plant operators will examine the problem in more detail to prevent further buildups.

Of the microscreens, he said, “DNREC agrees they are beyond their service life.”

DNREC spokesman Michael Globetti said the plant has been conducting daily sampling and visual observation of the plant’s discharge, with no reports of noncompliance. Globetti said the city has submitted a plan to remedy the problem, which is under review by DNREC’s groundwater discharges division.

Replacing the microscreens is part of the city’s planned $10 million in plant upgrades as part of the city’s ocean outfall project. Cooper said it is likely the city will have to separate replacement of the microscreens from the outfall project and replace them sooner. Despite publicity from the discharge into the canal, Cooper said the plant consistently meets DNREC standards even without the screens.

“The incident in July, they would have helped but they would not have eliminated it completely,” he said.

Still, for the Delaware chapter of Surfrider Foundation, the city’s knowledge that the microscreens were not working shows evidence of negligence. In a letter to DNREC Secretary David Small, the Surfriders asked DNREC to levy heavy monetary penalties on the city.

“The city of Rehoboth Beach negligently, and we believe knowingly, discharged pollutants which could constitute a threat to human health, welfare and the environment,” the letter said.

The Surfriders also pointed out that Rehoboth has been operating with an expired National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, which is required for all wastewater treatment plants.

Globetti said the Rehoboth plant’s permit is expired, but the permit was administratively extended, allowing the plant to continue operation until a new permit is issued.

“DNREC is working with the city of Rehoboth to renew the permit, and it will be publicly noticed along with other permit applications the city needs for the proposed ocean outfall at a later date,” Globetti said. He said the date is likely to be sometime in the fall.

 Cooper: Suit prevents quick response

Cooper said the city could take a more aggressive approach to the outfall project and plant upgrades, but it is still facing a federal lawsuit over the $52.5 million the city needs to complete the project.

“We have no authority right now. We cannot proceed to borrow the $52.5 million until that is resolved,” Cooper said.

Rehoboth resident Jackie Nichols is suing the city over the constitutionality of the city’s voting laws. Nichols is seeking to overturn the results of a June 2015 referendum allowing the city to borrow money for the outfall. The referendum narrowly passed, 637-601, but Nichols argued that the city was requiring voters to be residents for six months, a requirement not spelled out in the city’s charter on special-election voting.

The six-month requirement was outlawed by the General Assembly in July with a bill that mandated that municipalities could not make residents wait more than 30 days before they can register to vote.   

Nichols also argued that allowing registered voters and all property owners to vote violated the 14th Amendment’s “one person, one vote,” principle because it allowed some voters to cast ballots as themselves and on behalf of their property if the property was owned by a limited liability company.

The city argued that Nichols lacked standing to bring suit as she was not affected by the requirements and was allowed to vote.

The city got good news from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia Sept. 7 when City Solicitor Glenn Mandalas announced a three-justice panel ruled in the city’s favor that Nichols did not have standing to bring the suit. However, he said, the ruling was 2-1, meaning Nichols could appeal for an en banc hearing with all five justices hearing the case.

Nichols’ attorney, David Finger, said he was considering moving for a hearing by the full court, but no decision has been made.

In addition, Cooper said plans for the $10 million in treatment plant upgrades are still in early stages; the city will need to reconsider which upgrades must be done to remedy the problem that led to the July discharge.

First major permit comes up

One of the first permits the city needs is from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to install the outfall pipe and diffuser 6,000 feet off the shore at Deauville Beach. The planned route of the outfall pipe is to lead from the plant, down the canal, through Grove Park and down Henlopen Avenue to the Deauville Beach parking lot.

Stephen Rochette, spokesman for the corps, said Saturday, Oct. 1 is the deadline for public comments. He said a decision will depend on the comments received, responding to comments and whether a public hearing is deemed necessary. Rochette said any person may request, in writing, within the comment period that a public hearing be held to consider the material matters at issue in the permit application. The corps would then determine whether to resolve issues informally or schedule a hearing, he said.

Comments must be submitted, in writing, to the District Engineer, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Philadelphia District, Wanamaker Building, 100 Penn Square East, Philadelphia, Pa. 19107.

Rehoboth seeks path forward on stormwater outfalls

Cooper: Rehoboth no worse than Dewey or Ocean City

Although Rehoboth Beach’s ocean outfall has been a highly visible and controversial project, the city’s stormwater outfalls have given city officials an equally large headache for the last four years.

The city was mandated to study a new solution to the current stormwater system as part of DNREC Secretary David Small’s approval of the ocean outfall project. However, Mayor Sam Cooper said the city is going to have to have further discussions with DNREC on how to move forward. He said engineers GHD would like to conduct stormwater sampling, but that process will not be easy.

“If you look at the summer, you would have to anticipate a storm event, not knowing how big it is,” Cooper said. The problem would be to get a composite sample throughout the storm event to develop a true average.

He said the sampling process is not as simple as just sticking a bottle in the water and testing it. “To make huge judgments on one grabbed sample is problematic,” Cooper said.

While improving the quality of the stormwater is important, Cooper questioned whether spending a large amount of money on the technology to do so is the best use of the city’s resources. Cooper downplayed concerns that swimmers shouldn’t go into the water after a storm because of bacteria from stormwater outfalls.

The stormwater outfalls, located at Rehoboth, Maryland, Olive, Brooklyn and Delaware avenues, were clogged during the 2012 beach replenishment, leading the army corps to come in and extend the pipes on Rehoboth and Delaware avenues.

Unlike the city’s wastewater, there is no filtering process for water that goes into the ocean from the stormwater outfalls. Stormwater pipes at Maryland Avenue and Grenoble Place were damaged in the January 2016 nor’easter. The city was cited for a water quality advisory in June after elevated bacteria was found in samples at Rehoboth Avenue. DNREC officials said the bacteria was likely from wildlife and was washed into the water by rainfall.

“To really take it to the next step, to propose any projects, we need more data. We don’t really know what the concentration of bacteria is,” Cooper said. “It’s the same ocean, the same things going in it for 50 years. I think the risks are very low. To retrofit this town with a lot of these things is hugely expensive. We don’t have any more bacteria than Ocean City, Dewey Beach or Bethany Beach. We’re not a filthy town.”

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