INDIANA--Treatment Plants Have Encountered Some Close Calls : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

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The Indianapolis Star

INDIANAPOLIS (March 12, 2000) -- Industrial waste flushed into a city sewer can have catastrophic consequences after washing through a municipal plant.

That could be what happened in December at Anderson, where a toxic foam flowed into White River, killing 115 tons of fish.

Sometimes, the warning signs witnessed in a treatment plant -- scum, foaming, peculiar odors and bizarre colors -- can be traced to a potential polluter.

"Inevitably, something comes in that doesn't look right," said Len Ashack, a branch chief for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management who once managed a municipal plant.

Other Indiana cities have been lucky. And vigilant. Elkhart and Franklin both managed to track down contaminants.

They averted the kind of disaster that has attracted the attention of state and federal investigators, who say what happened in Anderson is one of the worst cases of pollution in Indiana history.

In Anderson, officials didn't catch what flushed into city sewers in time to stem serious damage. Investigators have yet to determine the cause, though attention remains focused on a chemical suspected to have been used by Guide Corp. to treat metal-plating wastewater.

Many more near misses never will be known to the public.

One state environmental engineer said he investigates up to 10 such cases a year.

This detective work is not an exact science, sometimes beginning with a very simple sensor -- the nose.

The city of Franklin started experiencing problems in the past year. Operators noticed a sweet odor, foaming and scum inside the plant, usually on Fridays. But not every Friday.

City lab technicians asked the state for assistance and began to visit area plants that flushed wastewater into city sewers.

"We were kind of scratching our heads," said Kevin Cohoon, an environmental engineer for the state.

About 20 plants were visited before sampling equipment was dropped into a manhole near Casting Technology Co. The same sweet odor was evident. Samples of the company's wastewater were tested and found to be toxic to fish.

The company was using a product called Zyglo, a fluorescent paint used to spray automotive castings. Once sprayed, the parts are inspected under black light to reveal defects.

The fix, in this instance, was relatively simple, according to state officials. The company reduced the amount of Zyglo it was using. "There haven't been problems in the last nine months," Cohoon said.

Under a permit issued in February by the state, pollutants in the company's wastewater -- chromium, copper, nickel, lead, zinc, cadmium, silver and cyanide -- are measured and monitored.

If the company violates its permit, the state could impose penalties.

In Elkhart, a pollution mystery was solved with the help of a whistleblower.

An employee of Bayer Corp. called the city to complain about the company's pretreatment plant operator. The company, which produces organic waste in the manufacture of citric acid, set up a surveillance camera and caught John Fezy diluting samples.

He was fired.

The company won't comment on the case. Fezy also declined to comment.

But Elkhart officials knew something was wrong even before Fezy was caught on tape.

"There was an idea it had probably been going on for six months," said Lynn Newvine, the city's laboratory and pretreatment director. A sampler dropped into a sewer line was detecting problems in the company's flushed waste.

"They had the potential to wipe us out," Newvine said.

Bayer's wastewater easily could have overwhelmed the beneficial microorganisms that break down waste in the city's plant.

"It's like a human being sitting down at a Thanksgiving dinner," said Newvine. "You can't possibly eat everything in front of you."

The same goes for Newvine's microscopic bugs.

"If our microorganisms are full, they won't eat what's available, and it moves out into the receiving stream."

Any substance, from restaurant grease to manufacturing waste, can disrupt the delicate balance of bacteriological treatment.

Any industry that adjusts its discharges, or changes its processes, should notify municipal plants. And municipal plants should sample and inspect routinely. Any resulting problems should be reported to the state.

A failure to communicate at any point along the way can be disastrous.

In many respects, Newvine said, Elkhart was lucky to have caught the Bayer operator before significant damage occurred -- perhaps to the St. Joseph River. In this instance, everything worked the way it should have.

The state also revoked Fezy's certification and fined him $1,000, though he continues to work as a certified operator in Illinois.

There will be other near misses.

Ashack believes that in most instances, the contaminants can be found when they filter through sewer lines and into municipal plants. But no one can anticipate the unexpected.

"What may have been causing nothing," he said, "suddenly causes something."

) 2000 Indiana Newspapers Inc. AP materials ) 2000 Associated Press.

-- (, March 12, 2000

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