Flushable wipes are one more headache for Richard Dulay.
“Everybody throws in these baby wipes, and they’re supposed to be degradable, but they’re simply not,” said the Morrisville Wastewater Treatment Plant superintendent.
The wipes gum up pipes and machinery, leading to costly repairs. In 2014, the plant added a special screen to a 60-year-old tank to sift out wipes that will end up in a landfill.
In addition to flushing the wrong items, wastewater-treatment plant operators face an array of foes — from sudden rainstorms to industrial dumping to a chronic lack of federal investment. And while infrastructure spending is a buzzword in Washington, it’s unclear if fixing this problem will benefit.
Aging pipes, aging plants
After both sides used infrastructure spending as a rallying cry in the 2016 presidential election, President Donald Trump is promising a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, but has not released any details. However his proposed 2018 budget does call for cuts to what some agencies, including the Department of Transportation, invest in capital projects. The budget also calls for eliminating a $498 million program to fund water and wastewater infrastructure in rural areas.
In Pennsylvania, aging wastewater infrastructure will cost an estimated $28 billion to repair and upgrade over the next 20 years, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.
In the meantime, the Morrisville plant and others face penalties from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection if they fail to meet pollutant standards set in their state permits. In 2016, the municipality paid $50,000, down from an initial $100,000 penalty.
The culprit? A broken steel paddle an oxygen aeration tank, where microbial agents do a lot of the heavy-lifting to break down unwanted organic material which can then settle out. Without a functioning paddle, the plant exceeded Clean Water Act standards for its “effluent limit” — the small amounts of certain pollutants in the final product released into waterways. Other violations included failure to immediately report issues to the DEP.
“We’re not talking about raw sewage,” said John Warenda, executive director of the Morrisville Municipal Authority. “We’re talking about violations where we did not meet treatment parameters.”
Municipal authorities like this one oversee two, interconnected wastewater systems — the pipes that convey wastewater and the treatment plants themselves.
Aging infrastructure is a problem for both halves.
“We have pipes in some of the older communities that are vitrified clay, what’s called terra cotta,” said Michael DiSantis, director of operations and maintenance at Delcora, which manages wastewater in eastern Delaware County.
In 2015, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection fined Delcora $688,352.12 for combined sewer overflows — stemming from those old pipes — according to DEP documents. In a combined sewer, stormwater from the street and wastewater from homes are transported in one big, underground trough. When heavy rains overload the pipes, they are designed to discharge untreated sewage and stormwater into local rivers — a combined sewer overflow.
In other cases, old pipes crack and cause “infiltration and inflow” problems.
“They take water like a straw, sucking water out of the ground,” said John Brosius, deputy director of the Pennsylvania Municipal Authorities Association.
Fines and fixes
In 2015 and 2016, the DEP fined 22 wastewater authorities in Southeastern Pennsylvania for violating their National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits, the method for measuring and controlling the impact of treatment plants on local streams and rivers as mandated by the federal Clean Water Act. Several of the fines related to combined sewer or sanitary system overflows or effluent limit violations.
Two themes, user error and system age, emerge when it comes to those fines, according to Jen Fields, the DEP’s clean water program manager in Southeastern Pennsylvania.
“It’s just over time, there’s only so many times you can Band-Aid a system before you realize that if you don’t take that next step and do an upgrade, you’re going to have some kind of a catastrophe,” she said. The fines are meant to encourage systems to correct problems.
For repeat offenders, such as DELCORA, the state requires them to come up with a long-term plan to rectify polluting systems. Those plans require investment, which DiSantis said can only come from one place: residents.
“There’s no doubt our needs for capital are going to outstrip our revenue,” he said. To get more revenues, DELCORA will need to take on debt. “All this ends up meaning, that we’re gonna have to raise our rates.” DELCORA pumps waste to Philadelphia’s treatment plants – building its own would cost $400 million, according to DiSantis.
Every person interviewed said they did not expect much investment at the federal level, based historical trends. An analysis of U.S. spending at the local, state and federal level on water and wastewater out of the University of North Carolina’s School of Government found that operations spending has increased since the 1950s, while capital investments have stayed relatively flat.
Those rising costs make the idea of scroungind up tens of millions of dollars for infrastructure upgrades unappealing, according to Brosius. He said PMAA’s number one complaint is “cost.”
“It’s very expensive and you have to turn that around and put it in your ratepayers bills,” he said.
A state agency, PennVest, exists to give state loans and grants to water systems, usually on the order of less than $10 million.
In the case of Morrisville, Warenda is gunning for the most expensive options — $120 million for a new plant, located a little bit downstream on the Delaware. Upgrading the existing plant would cost between $80-90 million.
“The biggest problem we have is [the plant] was built in the 50s, and it’s been modified every 20 years or so, but they kept the technology from the 50s,” said Dulay.