All is not well at the city of Rainier’s sewage treatment plant.
Since at least 2014, Rainier’s wastewater treatment plant has had a history of permit violations that have led to multiple warnings from Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality. Now, current and former employees and contractors for the city allege that the plant has been mismanaged and run improperly for years.
Former Rainier public works employee Justin Spencer, who worked for the city from August 2013 through March 2015, told The Daily News last week that water discharged from the plant into the Columbia River was not always properly treated before release.
The $9.7 million plant was completed in 2009 after a year and a half of construction, and the city touted it as more energy efficient and capable of meeting stricter environmental standards. Spencer didn’t see it that way.
“One of the first things I noticed (when I started working there) was that the UV lights were never on in the effluent trough,” Spencer said. “That’s a huge issue, that’s part of the process before (the wastewater) is discharged.”
UV radiation passing through the water kills harmful organisms before they get into the river, but the UV lights “were off the amount of time I was there,” Spencer said.
Spencer described wastewater treatment facilities as sorts of living, breathing creatures that rely on aeration and healthy, waste-eating bacteria to work properly. Prior to working at Rainier’s plant, Spencer was employed as a biosolids site operator at Three Rivers Regional Wastewater in Longview. (Three Rivers is a much larger operation, designed to handle an average 26 million gallons of water per day with a maximum of 62 million. Rainier’s can only handle between 500,000 and 2.5 million gallons per day).
“Even the effluent that went into the river (at Rainier) looked and smelled like sewage,” Spencer said.
Spencer said that he tried to tell his supervisors about his concerns, but “it just kind of went in one ear and out the other.
“At some point in time you just kind of keep your mouth shut and move on.”
A request for an interview with Rainier Public Works director Dan Foultner, who operated the plant until 2015, was denied.
Computer technician Larry Helenius − who helped install the plant’s electronic monitoring software when the plant first went online − confirmed Spencer’s report about the UV lights. Helenius was called in when the plant switched operators in early 2015 to help install an alarm that would send out a call whenever the UV light intensity dipped below permitted levels.
Based on his observations and description from the operator, “It seemed like the UV system had been offline for some time,” Helenius said.
Helenius also said that during a site visit during the beginning of 2015 he discovered that the plant’s emergency alarm system was not working.
“(The plant operator) originally called me out there because he was not getting any alarms at home from the plant when he wasn’t there,” Helenius said. “I came out there because I had set up the original auto-dialer.”
Helenius discovered that the alarm’s auto-dialer was shut off and that the electronic monitoring program connected to the alarm had been closed.
“I thought it was real simple,” Helenius said. “The auto-dialer software went through the motions to (call) out, and it didn’t go anywhere.”
After checking the modem, which seemed to be OK, Helenius plugged in a phone and found that the line was dead.
“The phone line had been dead for who knows how long,” Helenius said. “I don’t really have any idea how long it was off.”
While the UV lights and the plant’s emergency call system have since been fixed, current employees have told The Daily News that some problems persist. One is that the amount of septage, or sludge, that the plant accepts on a daily basis, has increased sharply, making it more difficult to keep the plant in compliance with wastewater treatment standards.
Septage is partially treated waste that’s stored in septic tanks and is typically pumped out by a private contractor, such as Roto-Rooter or United Site Services. Haulers pay a per-gallon fee to the city to dispose of their waste with the plant.
Spencer, the former public works employee, also had qualms about the septage that Rainier’s plant was accepting when he worked there.
Although it is not against the plant’s permit to accept septage for treatment, the plant was not designed to take large quantities of the concentrated materials, Spencer said. At the Three Rivers wastewater plant, Spencer said, septage was slowly poured in so it wouldn’t overwhelm the treatment system. At Rainier, no such measures were taken, he said.
The plant also never had a DEQ-approved plan for how to handle septage, though Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality has noted that it is now aware that the plant accepts “significant quantities of septage,” said Randall Bailey, the official DEQ inspector for the plant.
“Having and following a Hauled Waste Plan assures DEQ and Rainier that the plant will not accept material that it cannot treat and it will not be overloaded,” Bailey said.
At this point, the city has submitted a plan for DEQ approval, which will likely involve a suggested limit of 13,600 gallons of hauled waste per day. It is unclear at this point how much septage the plant has taken in the past or how much it receives currently.
According to financial audits available with the Oregon Secretary of State, the city did not report any sludge revenue in 2010. But starting in 2011, revenues from the disposal of sludge first appeared and continued to rise, peaking in 2014. In 2011, the city reported $32,509 in sludge revenue, followed by $144,576 in 2012, $200,732 in 2013, $310,068 in 2014, $205,951 in 2015 and $213,125 in 2016.
“The amount of septage haulers that were coming into that plant, it was overloading the plant all the time,” Spencer said. “It wasn’t designed to take that amount of septage.”
Despite these claims to The Daily News, Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality officials say there is no current investigation into the operation of the plant.
However, two other state agencies are currently investigating other issues at the plant. Oregon’s Occupational Health and Safety administration has an open investigation with the city in response to workplace safety complaints from the plant, which originated in early May.
Oregon State Police are also investigating the plant regarding the theft of a backup computer. It was used to track data that assure compliance with the plant’s clean water requirements and to communicate with the emergency alarm system.
The computer vanished the evening of May 9, according to Rainier Mayor Jerry Cole. Cole said Rainier police received a report from the wastewater plant’s operator that the computer could not be found.
The theft came days after The Daily News filed a public records request for water quality data from the sewer plant’s system. It is unclear if the theft of the computer will delay The Daily News’s request for records by any significant amount of time.
“(The plant operator) said maybe it was stolen,” Cole said. “Any time we hear of any theft, we take all of those allegations seriously.”
Cole said the Oregon State Police will conduct an independent investigation to avoid any conflicts of interest that might arise if the city investigated itself.
“It very well could just be misplaced,” Cole said of the computer. “But we don’t like to mess around with any accusations or allegations of such.” Oregon State Police confirmed Monday that there was an active investigation into the plant but declined to release further details.
Cole said the computer contains “history of just about everything wastewater-related.”
According to Rainier’s city administrator, Debra Dudley, the data is backed up on another computer, but it is unclear where it is backed up or how it will be made available.
History of DEQ violations
Other documents obtained by The Daily News through a public records request show DEQ has issued several letters to the city notifying it that the plant had violated its wastewater permit five times since 2014. Violations included exceeding dissolved oxygen levels in wastewater discharged to the Columbia River, sewage spills, failing to notify DEQ about spills in a timely manner and failing to have a certified operator on site.
Records of state enforcement actions against the plant prior to 2014 were not immediately available from the DEQ. An inspection conducted on Jan. 24 this year showed the plant was currently operating in compliance with its permit.
On Nov. 18, 2014, the city received a warning letter from DEQ advising that the plant had committed two medium-severity violations.
The letter noted that in August and September 2014, the plant exceeded its permit limits for biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), a measure of the quantity of oxygen used by microorganisms (e.g., aerobic bacteria) in the oxidation of organic matter. Releasing too much oxygen-absorbing pollutants harms the river’s ecology. When a plant exceeds BOD limits, the operator is required to submit a report stating the cause of the violation and “the steps taken or planned to reduce, eliminate, and prevent recurrence of the noncompliance.”
No such reports were submitted to the DEQ, which prompted the warning letter.
On May 19, 2015, the Oregon Emergency Response System received a report of a sewer line break with sewage dumping into a ditch near Larch Street and Washington Way (there is also an intersection of Larch and Washington Way in Longview, but they are not the same). According to the incident description filed, “The rate is approximately four gallons per minute and has been diverted into a manhole. The initial spill did reach a nearby ditch that leads to an unknown named creek. There is no evidence the sewage reached the creek.”
The permit for the wastewater plant requires that any spill or overflow be reported to the DEQ.
The ditch was dug out and the soil was replaced. While the city received a warning letter, no fine was levied by DEQ.
On Aug. 27, 2015, the City of Rainier received yet another warning letter from DEQ regarding this leak. According to the letter, standard reports from former Public Works Director James Dahlquist verified that the leak was discovered on May 15, four days prior to notification to OERS.
Rainier’s wastewater permit requires DEQ notification within 24 hours of discovery. This failure earned the plant another medium-severity violation.
While investigating this leak, DEQ also discovered another permit violation, this time regarding who was supervising the plant at the time the leak occurred.
The plant’s permit requires “a properly certified operator (to) supervise the city’s sewage collection system, and that a properly certified supervisor be available at all times to respond on-site at the request of the permittee and to any other operator.”
According to the warning letter, neither of the certified operators were consulted or notified when the leak was identified. For this, the sewage plant received a “Class One” violation, the most serious violation the DEQ hands out.
The warning letter notes that after a meeting with DEQ inspectors on June 24, 2015, the city had taken actions to fix the problems noted in the warning letter.
The DEQ never took formal enforcement action and never levied any fines against the City of Rainier, though it did threaten the city with civil penalties if any of the violations were repeated.
On May 3, 2016, the city received one more warning letter in regards to a sewer overflow at the plant that occurred on March 18. This time the spill was reported within the 24-hour period required by DEQ, but after reviewing the incident DEQ determined the spill was entirely preventable.
According to the warning letter, about 200 gallons of raw sewage were released from the plant to the ground surface. “The spill started when a power supply transfer switch failed, which incapacitated the pump controls and the alarm system,” the letter read.
The pumps did not start when needed, and no alarms were sent to the plant’s operators. The overflow continued until city personnel checked on the station, according to the letter.
While the spill was cleaned up properly and did not enter any bodies of water, the spill was the result of “inadequate design of the pump controls and alarm system,” the letter stated.
“There’s a lot of little things that I did witness when I was there,” Spencer said. “As far as the sewage stuff goes, I live downriver from that plant. So, that was kind of the sticker with me.”