NM - Raw Sewage Not Part of Spill

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Tuesday, July 18, 2000

Raw Sewage Not Part of Spill

By Andrea Schoellkopf Journal Staff Writer

State and Rio Rancho officials said Friday that raw sewage was not dumped into the Rio Grande during this week. However, a health advisory for the river was expected to continue through Saturday.

A mechanical failure is being blamed for the release of some 400,000 gallons of treated waste water and sludge into the river Thursday afternoon.

"We want to emphasize, raw sewage was not emitted into the river," Rio Rancho City Manager James Jimenez said during a news conference Friday afternoon.

A waste water sample taken from the exit point of the city's Treatment Plant No. 2 shortly after the spill showed a bacteria count that was far less than dangerous levels, officials said.

The sample had a count of 6.6 bacterial colony units out of 100 milliliters of water, with the maximum allowable average count for seven days being 400.

"For sewer water, that's not bad," said Tito Madrid, director of field operations for the Environment Department. He said drinking water has a count of zero.

Still, a family of three who had been swimming in the river Thursday reported nausea, vomiting and diarrhea to state health officials Friday morning after hearing of the spill, Environment Department Cabinet Secretary Peter Maggiore said.

Two fishermen casting their lines near the discharge site Friday afternoon were asked by a state official to move upstream about a mile.

The contaminated water could possibly contain E. coli, salmonella, hepatitis and other bacteria or viruses, according to state health officials.

Residents were being cautioned not to drink, swim or fish in the Rio Grande until results from fecal coliform tests are available today. Maggiore said the river's area of concern would probably not extend south past the North Valley.

Maggiore said officials were testing water from the plant and along the river Friday. Results would be available today on the Internet at www.nmenv.state.nm.us.

The state's warning to stay away from the river had delayed a release of 200 endangered silvery minnows downstream in Albuquerque until next week.

"We thought it best not to introduce a sensitive species near extinction into possibly polluted waters," U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Tom Bauer said Friday afternoon. He said it was "as a precaution."

The agency also sent a team of biologists to take samples and look for sick, dying or dead fish along the river.

Maggiore said the state would be working very closely with the city to minimize the potential for future spills.

"We've been concerned about the collection system in the past," Maggiore said. "... An incident like this shows something more needs to be done." Maggiore said it was too soon to know if the city was in violation of its permit or would be fined as a result.

Officials said the spill probably would not have a long-lasting effect on the Rio Grande and would probably be diluted by the time it got far downstream. It would not affect Albuquerque's drinking water because the city uses deep wells to tap into the aquifer.

Most of the water in the Rio Grande is being used for irrigation purposes. An average of 1.3 billion gallons of water flow through the river in July.

Rio Rancho pumps out some 2 million gallons daily from the plant into the Rio Grande through Corrales about two miles up river from the Alameda Bridge, and a total of 3.5 million gallons from its three plants. The city is not limited by how much it pumps out, only by the concentration of solid matter in the waste water.

The release occurred from an 800,000-gallon clarifier tank, which separates the solids from the waste water.

The tank had been drained of the water during the low-use hours at night to make repairs on a rake, which scrapes sludge along the bottom. When the tank had filled the next day during the peak use period, the sludge was stirred up again and escaped through the drainage.

"We agree this situation is unacceptable," Jimenez said. "It should not have happened."

Similar spill problems occur if someone dumps oil upstream from the system, which kills the microorganisms that eat the bacteria, said Nick Apodaca, interim manager for Severn Trent Services, the company that operates the waste water system under contract for the city.

The city samples the water three times a week for solids.

Sludge is normally treated with microscopic organisms that break down the waste.


-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), July 18, 2000

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