An undetermined amount of untreated wastewater flowed into the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal Aug. 15, after clogs in sewer pumps forced Lewes Board of Public Works to temporarily shut down a lift station near the Savannah Road drawbridge.
BPW President Preston Lee said the lid of a cleanout near the Inn at Canal Square popped off about 4:30 p.m., Aug. 15, allowing wastewater to discharge onto the surface for six to eight hours. Some of it entered the canal, he said, and the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control was notified immediately.
Mayor Ted Becker, who owns the inn, estimates there’s a distance of 20 to 25 feet between the cleanout and the canal. He said the backup was limited to a courtyard area, and it did not impact operations of the inn. Some of the discharge entered the crawlspace of a hexagonal building along the canal, and a local waste company has already been there to clean the site, Becker said.
The spill was directly caused by problems at Lift Station 4, which pumps all wastewater from the town side of the canal to the treatment plant on American Legion Road. Lee said plant operator Inframark noticed an unusual sound coming from the pumps Aug. 13, which indicated a clog. When they realized they were unable to unclog the pump, they procured a backup bypass in the event the station’s secondary pump became overwhelmed.
Then about 1 a.m., Aug. 15, Inframark received an alarm that the secondary pump had also clogged. The bypass was installed and running by 3 a.m. While the pump station was down, wastewater was pumped into a truck from Clean Delaware to haul to the wastewater treatment plant. A few hours after the bypass was installed, the BPW’s wastewater system was back to normal operating levels, Lee said.
But, another issue occurred about 12:30 p.m., Aug. 15, when the bypass suffered a catastrophic failure. Another bypass pump was procured from Delmar, but was not operational until about 10:15 p.m. Trucks from Clean Delaware, Sussex County and the BPW were used from about 1 to 11 p.m. to pump out the system from Lift Stations 3 and 4 and take the material to the treatment plant while the second bypass was installed. It was during this time that the cleanout near Inn at Canal Square began leaking sewage.
The pumps in the lift station remain offline until they can be unclogged, which General Manager Austin Calaman estimates could be a few days.
“We shut the electric off to that building,” Calaman said. “We want to make sure none of the connections were compromised.”
BPW now has another bypass on standby if the current one fails. Calaman said the failure of the first bypass was an equipment problem, not anything to do with the BPW or its infrastructure. He said that was confirmed by a technician who inspected it after its failure.
Lee said the most likely cause of the clogs is unflushable materials being flushed, from wipes to syringes. He said those materials wreak havoc on sewer systems and wastewater treatment plants. For years, the BPW has attempted to increase public awareness on what’s flushable and what’s not, and Lee said they’ll have to again ramp up efforts.
“It’s a real problem,” he said. “We need to find ways to catch it. It really does have an impact.”