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City copes with STEP complaints


Times staff

Some have leaked. Others have smelled. Electrical controls have broken. Pumps have failed. A few STEP systems in the recently completed Back of the Cape sewer project have even interfered with telephone calls.

City Engineer Lynne Browne conceded the network of about 1,200 tanks and more than 20 miles of sewer lines has problems. But despite horror stories, she urged City Councilors last night to give it a chance -- if only because the system that cost more than $30 million has been bought and put in the ground.

"Now I feel we really are getting a handle on it," Browne said. "It really will not be the white elephant people believe it to be."

But councilors, who were looking for Browne and other city officials to explain exactly how much the system costs to maintain, were dubious. After an audit criticizing the city's management of the sewer project and a lack of financial control, some even seemed edgy.

Council President Abdullah Khambaty recalled days when the city debated whether to install the STEP, or Septic Tank Effluent Pump, systems in the first place. While some questioned whether the relatively new technology could work, a selling point was an estimated upkeep cost of about $50,000 a year, he said.

By contrast, the city this year entered into a maintenance agreement worth about $272,000 annually, and several councilors contend that doesn't even represent all the costs.

"I can't justify what a salesman told you," Browne said.

"OK, we will move away from the fairy tale," said Khambaty, changing the subject.

One person who pushed hard for last night's review was Council Vice President Harriet Webster. Among her greatest concerns was the fact the city is paying its contractor to map locations of fiberglass tanks on individual pieces of property.

In the STEP system, those tanks store solid waste much like septic tanks, as liquids are pumped away through pressurized pipes.

"It's just astounding to me that we don't know where we put them," Webster said.

Christy Millhouse, the city's environmental engineer, explained that about 60 percent of the tanks have been mapped, while the rest need work.

Other problems with the STEP system were less subtle.

As Browne listed them, she began with one of the most notorious -- a recurring odor near Goose Cove, where the STEP system dumps into the city's conventional gravity sewers.

Browne explained it had been caused by a design flaw, and has since been neutralized by adding a "safe, inert chemical" into the system that helps eliminate odors.

And for now, it doesn't cost a thing. The city is participating in a test program, though it is likely to eventually buy the chemical system.

Among other STEP system problems have been ruptured pipes. Browne said a rash of them several months ago were caused by pressure problems.

Engineers have since discovered how to deal with that, she said, by replacing a critical pressure valve.

Maintenance crews have also found 12 to 14 leaks and problems with the fiberglass tanks. Browne said all have been repaired in place, and the tanks returned to service.

As for pumps that draw liquid sewage from the tanks, more than 30 have need to be either repaired or replaced since July.

Electrical panels that control the systems have also failed, especially during electrical storms. The manufacturer is now replacing the panels at no cost, Browne said.

The city is also getting upgrades to deal with yet another problem -- alarms that trip when a tank overflows.

While about half of the systems' alarms notify homeowners of the problem, the rest signal an engineering department computer, leaving city crews to call homeowners.

With the upgrades, all of the alarms would notify homeowners.

But those alarms are tied to telephone lines, which explains problems of a few who have picked up interference when making telephone calls. Browne said engineers are still figuring out how to deal with that problem.

A sticking point, however, was the limited history of repairs.

They have only been tracked since this summer, when the city hired a maintenance team. So those limited records exclude problems that arose as the systems were installed, from 1995 to last year.

Ward 1 Councilor Lee Kennedy also balked at the idea engineers may later approach the council to buy a specialized truck to pump the tanks. He noted the city already had such a truck, though it's now apparently stretched too thin.

But Browne noted the city could save money on repairs with the truck. She also reasoned that, with the system in the ground, the city needed to press forward to make it work.

"I think it is at our peril that we stop doing what we're doing now which, I think, is beginning to put us on the right track," she said.

-- Doris (, October 12, 2000

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