State: No Harm in Sewage Mishap

A wastewater plant malfunction that allowed partially treated sewage to flow into the Third Branch of the White River last month did not cause any immediate or long-term damage, state officials said yesterday.

Town Engineer Mardee Sanchez said that the facility’s two aerators, which provide oxygen to the bacteria that break down waste, went offline. That allowed the discharge and created a septic odor that hung over the downtown area and Central Street for several days.

The waste did go through the first round of treatment, however, and it didn’t cause any issues, such as a fish kill or contaminated drinking water, said Ernie Kelley, the wastewater program manager for the state’s Watershed Management Division.

Because the river is not currently being used swimming and fishing, there shouldn’t be any public health concerns, he said.

“It was not raw sewage,” Sanchez said. “The state wouldn’t put up with that. Neither would we.”

“When (the bacteria) don’t have the air, they’re not thriving, so they can’t break down the material as much,” Sanchez said.

The first aerator went down at the beginning of November, she said. The second one malfunctioned a couple of weeks later.

Sanchez deferred questions regarding specific dates to John Coffey, the chief operator of the town’s wastewater treatment facility, who did not return calls for comment yesterday.

The discharge of partially treated waste lasted for seven days, from Nov. 12 and Nov. 19, Kelley said. He said that both aerators were down during this time.

Sanchez said one of the aerators has since been fixed, ending the discharge issue. Kelley said parts for the other device should arrive any day.

Kelley said he does not know the volume of partially treated sewage that flowed into the Third Branch. He said the agency’s Compliance and Enforcement Division is conducting an investigation to see if the discharge violated limits set forth by an Environmental Protection Agency permit. Calls to that department yesterday were not returned.

“We don’t feel we have all the information yet,” said Jeff Fehrs, an inspector for the state’s Watershed Management Division, who was one of the first alerted to the discharge. “We may be a significant distance away.”

Fehrs declined to comment further, citing the ongoing investigation.

The partial treatment was only one of two issues affecting the Third Branch.

Kelley said that, thanks to Tropical Storm Irene, the river shifted about 15 feet east. And a heavy rainstorm several months ago moved more sand away from the stream channel, Sanchez said.

The result was the wastewater facility’s discharge pipe — the same one getting rid of the not-quite-right discharge — was exposed, releasing water that flowed in the open between 10 and 15 feet before hitting the river.

Federal regulations stipulate that wastewater cannot travel over land into a body of water. Before the storms, the pipe was in the river.

The area is currently fenced off, Sanchez said, and the town is looking into getting a stream alteration team from the state to come and fix the issue.

Jon Wolper can be reached at or 603-727-3248.