If it’s not a fire, it’s a flood.
That’s what city leaders, quite literally, have been dealing with at the Northfield wastewater treatment plant in 2018. In January, the City Council declared a local emergency after the plant flooded after a pipe plug came loose. Then, in early June, the council declared another local emergency after part of the facility was damaged from a fire in late May. Last week, the facility flooded again after a PVC pipe broke, forcing staff to discharge 1 million gallons of wastewater into the Cannon River.
Now city leaders find themselves contemplating what should be done after three incidents they say were unrelated but, nonetheless, caused damage to the plant and questions among residents.
“These are major incidents, resulting in added cost and, in particular, this most recent bypass had serious impact to the environment as well as to our neighbors downstream,” Mayor Rhonda Pownell said in a video posted by the city Friday. “… It’s important to me, City Council members and our dedicated staff to inform the public.”
Pownell noted that more information will come forward in the coming weeks on the “three separate, significant wastewater treatment plant issues — all unrelated.”
Staff, led by Public Works Director Dave Bennett, responded to each of the incidents. The fire is by far the most costly, damaging important biosolids equipment that the city needed to replace. In all, it could cost $5-6 million. Repairs after the first flooding event cost about $175,000, and repairs after the PVC pipe break could reach $45,000.
The city’s insurer, the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust, will pay for almost the entire cost of all three incidents. The city expects to spend around $200,000 out of pocket, including a $100,000 premium and about $100,000 for a process upgrade that insurance doesn’t cover.
Continuing problems at the plant represent a single issue, say city leaders. There may not be a one-size-fits-all solution to be found, but there is a clear need for action.
“We don’t believe the incidents are related to staffing or management; We don’t believe it related to procedures or policies; Our facility is not in substandard condition,” Bennett said. “They’re totally separate, unrelated events, but we want to improve and avoid these issues from recurring in the future.”
All three of the incidents took place after staffing hours at the plant.
The first occurred around 10 p.m. Monday, Jan. 8. A pipe plug came loose, flooding the lower level of the biologically aerated filtration building of around 5 feet.
A contractor was brought in to install a new plug overnight and the plant was back operating by 7 a.m. Tuesday. Staff and contractors began to assess components in the lower levels and found several mechanisms exposed to water were not operating properly. They promptly declared a local emergency and got to work making the necessary repairs and replacements.
The fire occurred late night May 29 in the biosolids building when one of the pieces of equipment in the building caught fire. Staff was unsure if the fire was related to a mechanical issue or a result of the process where a chemical is added to the system. Updates on the fire investigation from the insurance company are expected at the July 17 council meeting.
The fire caused heavy damage to biosolids equipment, causing staff to again call for a local emergency declaration. It has since ordered new equipment, but that is expected to take four to seven months to arrive.
The final incident took place late July 1 and the early morning hours of July 2.
It was determined that a PVC pipe broke in the system, causing the plant to flood and pumps to fail, forcing staff to release the approximate 1 million gallons of treated and untreated wastewater into the Cannon River over a three-hour period.
The costs to the plant are minimal, but the discharge prompted the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to begin an investigation. That may results in fines for the city, but according to the MPCA’s Cathy Rofshus, the goal of the investigation is compliance, not to dole out consequences.
“It’s looking at what actions can they take to fix the problems and prevent them in the future,” she said.
The city is also interested in ways to prevent future problems. Staff is already presenting a few ideas.
It’s added engineering consultation in advance of upcoming maintenance to add a layer of review and contingency to the process. Ahead of the new equipment installation at the biosolids building, staff is evaluating fire monitoring, suppression and standards for operation. It’s also reviewing of the system design throughout the buildings.
Leaders, including City Administrator Ben Martig, Public Works Director Bennett and Mayor Pownell, are also exploring a potential independent operational study to evaluate wastewater plant policies, procedures and best practices related to treatment. That study might provide feedback on whether added staff members and/or hours are needed at the facility, among other things.
The wastewater plant was built from 2000-02. In 2015, the city put together a plan for maintenance, repairs and replacements at the plant over the following 10 years, with some of the bigger ticket items scheduled beyond 2020 and some smaller items already addressed.
“I think the facility study was a good step, because when you get to 20 years, you’re evaluating your processes of when you’d start replacing your equipment … we’ve already begun replacing some equipment,” Bennett said.
The biggest cost from the 2018 incidents — the biosolids equipment damaged in the fire — was anticipated in the facility plan for replacement in 2021. A “silver lining” to all the plant problems, Martig said, is that equipment is now going to be replaced in 2018 through insurance funds. Instead of spending an anticipated $3.5 million for new equipment in three years, the city will spend about $200,000 and potentially see $4.6 million of new equipment.
“Short-term, it refocuses energy on these things temporarily,” Martig said. “But long-term, it’s providing significant upgrades to the facility and will allow us to potentially make new investments.”
But the city is likely to feel the effect of the problems in 2018. Staff will need to invest significant time in addressing issues at the plant and finalizing next steps, forcing attention away from other priorities and initiatives, such as those laid out in the three-year strategic plan.
“It will probably slow the delivery of some of the other items we wanted to accomplish in 2018,” Bennett said. “We just need to take the time to get this facility up and running.”