900,000 gallons sewage into river

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No enviromental problems just "show biz". Who are these people?

Treatment plant sends sewage into river Wastewater plant spills 900,000 gallons, but officials report no environmental problems.

By John Strauss The Indianapolis Star INDIANAPOLIS (Jan. 19, 2000) -- About 900,000 gallons of partially treated sewage spilled into the White River early Tuesday from one of the city's wastewater plants.

As bad as that sounds, it was small compared with sewer overflows that take place almost routinely at the plant and from the Indianapolis sewer system. State officials say no fish were killed, and there are no public water systems downriver to be threatened.

"All the normal sort of vital signs of the river are healthy," said Deputy Commissioner Matt Rueff of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

Staff Photo / Mike Fender SCENE OF SPILL: George Russell (left), operations manager at the Belmont wastewater treatment plant, and Tim George, deputy director of public works, look over the operation of a pump at the plant after partially treated sewage spilled into White River.

But the Belmont treatment plant overflow comes amid rising concern about the river's cleanliness and the massive fish kill downstream from Anderson caused by a chemical release.

Rueff said a ground fault, or unintentional escape of electricity to the ground, caused a circuit breaker to trip at 2:45 a.m. Tuesday. That halted pumps used to move partially treated sewage from one section of the plant to another.

The pumps were out of action for about 20 minutes and caused a backup of wastewater. Some of it was shunted to the city's second sewer plant, Southport, just downriver. Another portion, estimated at 900,000 gallons, was diverted to an overflow pipe and into the river.

County and state officials notified John Bonsett, director of environmental health for the Johnson County Health Department.

"It did not seem to have a significant impact," Bonsett said. "There are live fish in the area (of the plant)."

Johnson County residents get their drinking water from wells, not the river, he said.

"But there's a lot more awareness of the White River now," Bonsett said.

The public was not notified officially until a 5 p.m. news conference at the Belmont plant.

A spokesman for Mayor Bart Peterson said that was because officials wanted to have complete information before discussing the incident.

Pete Drum, who has lived on the river for 32 years and been a member of several environmental groups, said the overflow did not sound anything like the Madison County chemical release that prompted the fish kill.

In that case, the still-unidentified chemical passed through the Anderson water treatment plant and killed virtually all fish along 50 miles of river between that city and Indianapolis.

Drum is a member of the county's Wet Weather Technical Advisory Committee, which meets every other month to discuss combined-sewer overflows and other issues.

The overflows occur because some parts of Indianapolis use the same pipes to carry storm water and sewage, and the system is overwhelmed dozens of times a year during even moderate rains. When that happens, the overflowing sewage is diverted to the river.

The city has been negotiating with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management for a new permit for its wastewater plants, and the amount of combined sewer overflows that will be allowed is a key sticking point.

Tuesday's overflow at the plant was unrelated to the combined-sewer overflows. But the plant also is overwhelmed during heavy rains and routinely discharges more than 100 times as much partially treated sewage as was released Tuesday.

To understand why, it helps to know a little about how the facility works:

The plant includes two main phases known as primary and secondary treatment. Primary treatment uses screens and settling tanks to remove about half of the solid waste. The water is then pumped to another area for secondary treatment, which uses microbes to break down the remaining waste.

On a normal day when there is no rain, the plant handles about 100 million gallons of wastewater.

The secondary phase has a capacity of double that, or 200 million gallons per day.

That's still not enough during heavy rains, however, and there are overflows into the river. But designers have built a greater capacity, 300 million gallons, in the primary system. That means that when there are overflows during heavy rains, in most cases the wastewater has been at least partially treated.

Because of the difference in capacity between the first and second sections of the plant, a day of heavy rain could send about 100 million gallons of partially treated sewage into the river. That's more than 100 times the amount released Tuesday.

The plant is operated by the White River Environmental Partnership, a private group hired by the city. Drum said he has met with the operators and has great confidence in their ability.

He said his main concern would be if the power problem that caused the pump failure was the result of carelessness. The city still was investigating that Tuesday.

The overflow "doesn't fit a pattern" of problems at the plant, Drum said.

"I'm sorry it happened, but that's show biz. It's going to happen from time to time."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), January 20, 2000

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