For more than a dozen years, Winfield’s sewer plant has consistently dumped more ammonia nitrogen into the Kanawha River than its permit allows.
During that time, the state Department of Environmental Protection did not fine the city once. The city is now moving to replace the plant.
According to digital discharge monitoring reports from the DEP, Winfield’s sewer plant exceeded its average monthly limit of 15 milligrams per liter for ammonia nitrogen 82 percent of the time from October 2000 to March 2014. According to a plant inspection report, discharge reports from earlier years show the facility has had less consistent, but still significant, problems with ammonia nitrogen and other pollutants going back much further.
The plant is taking in more water than it can treat. According to the state Public Service Commission, the plant was certified to treat about 150,000 gallons per day in 1986, around the time it was built. Sometime before 2004, the DEP re-permitted it to treat almost twice that much, even though the city only made “minor improvements.”
According to a report this year by the Chapman Technical Group, even that larger daily capacity of 300,000 gallons isn’t enough when it rains or snows.
The report states the plant doesn’t meet current design standards set by the state Bureau for Public Health. The plant’s aerated sewer pond, where bacteria break down pollutants, is 2.6 million gallons too small for a plant that is supposed to treat 300,000 gallons per day.
The report adds that too much storm water and groundwater is entering the system, and the bars on a filter are too widely spaced to keep “trash, large solids and stringy material” from entering sewage ponds, messing up aerators and necessitating expensive repairs.
The DEP granted years of extensions on an order to address the problem of excessive storm water and groundwater infiltrating the system, before granting a less stringent discharge limit during an improvement project that ultimately didn’t fix the problem.
When asked why the DEP hadn’t fined the city, spokeswoman Kelley Gillenwater wrote in an email that “our focus has been to work with the city of Winfield to address this problem.”
“Representatives from the city have been cooperative with the DEP,” she said, “and we recognize the fact that there has been a lot of time and money spent attempting to fix the noncompliance issues.”
The plant’s average monthly ammonia nitrogen discharge over the past 13 years has been about 20 milligrams per liter — more than a third over the normal limit. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now considers the Winfield facility to be in “significant noncompliance,” though the EPA hasn’t taken any enforcement actions against the city.
“DEP is the permitting authority and they have taken a formal enforcement action,” EPA spokesman David Sternberg wrote in an email. “At this time, the State appears to be addressing the facility’s noncompliance. They have not referred the case to EPA for follow-up. EPA will reach out to the State to gather additional information.”
Matt Sweeney, water pollution permit manager for the DEP, said the limit of 15 milligrams per liter is based on what the sewer plant’s technology is expected to handle. Sweeney said that threshold is more stringent than the ammonia nitrogen level that would affect water quality, but said he didn’t know what level the plant could discharge before harming the river.
He said that while some may see technology-based limits as meaningless, they are spelled out in the federal Clean Water Act and convey that economically feasible technology exists to meet these requirements.
“Obviously, it is a benefit to water quality” when facilities meet the requirements, Sweeney said.
The EPA’s website states that ammonia nitrogen includes both ammonia and ammonium. Ammonia reduces the amount of dissolved oxygen in water. Too much of it can kill fish, but it more commonly affects their growth, gills, organ weights and number of red blood cells. Ammonia nitrogen can also feed algal blooms by putting too much nitrogen in surface waters.
Before Winfield built its plant, it had been cited by state and federal agencies for dumping raw sewage into the Kanawha River. Randy Barrett, the current mayor, said the plant opened in 1986, when the latest census put the city’s population at 329 people.
Chapman Technical Group originally designed the plant as a subcontractor for Scott Depot-based Randolph Engineering. Greg Belcher, an engineer and vice president for Chapman, said his company designed it with “reasonable growth” in mind. Roger Randolph, president of Randolph Engineering, said the plant had to be limited in size to receive federal funding.
But Winfield grew by more than 250 percent by 1990, and grew another 60 percent by 2000, to 1,858 residents. A year later, Barrett said the plant supposedly doubled its capacity, and the DEP permitted the facility to treat 300,000 gallons per day.
“I don’t think the science really worked on this,” Barrett said.
In March 2002, the city told the DEP that too much storm water and groundwater was entering its sewer system and creating backups, damaging property and threatening public health. The DEP said the water infiltration was causing overflows of untreated sewage, each of which violated the plant’s permit. The city said it needed a year to investigate this issue and take action.
On April 16, 2002, the DEP allowed the city to install a sewer overflow point to help alleviate problems, with the stipulation that the overflow point must be gone in a year. It extended that deadline later that April, and again in 2003, 2004 and 2005.
A 2006 report stated that the city had never removed sludge from the sewage lagoons at the plant, which had then been operating for almost two decades. Testing also showed that the facility had “consistently exceeded” discharge limits for ammonia nitrogen and other pollutants. The report noted that a review of discharge monitoring reports going back to around the plant’s construction showed the facility had broken the average monthly ammonia nitrogen discharge limit nearly 50 percent of the time. The report also showed that the city had overrun the limit on total suspended solids more than a quarter of the time.
“Winfield’s effluent results and the distribution of these results over time strongly suggests that while cleaning sludge out of the lagoons would likely greatly improve Winfield’s [ammonia nitrogen] discharges, this alone is unlikely to bring Winfield into acceptable compliance with all permit parameters, including [ammonia nitrogen],” the report stated. “It is time to evaluate all options and determine what can be done to bring this facility into acceptable compliance.”
In 2007, when the plant’s permit was up for renewal, the city asked to keep the overflow point another two years.
“Because of the perceived lack of progress … this was not acceptable,” a 2009 DEP consent order recounts. After two meetings to “establish a firm plan” to stop untreated sewage overflows, Winfield submitted a plan. The plant started an improvement project in September 2009 and finished in late 2010, according to a time line provided by the DEP. But it failed to get the ammonia nitrogen discharges under control.
The state consent order requiring the plant to go through with the project raised the facility’s average monthly discharge limit to 25 milligrams per liter from May 2009 through April 2011, said DEP environmental inspector Kevin Saunders. Saunders, the regional inspector for Putnam and Mason counties, said the higher limit was a sort of “grace period” allowed while the plant attempted to fix the problem, in part by removing sludge from the sewer lagoons, improving the collection system and eliminating untreated sewage overflows.
During that time, the facility still violated the higher limit four out of the only 15 months for which reports were available. After the effort failed to limit the ammonia nitrogen discharges, the limit was dropped back to 15 milligrams per liter — a threshold the facility continues to break.
Barrett said the sludge cleaning cost about $300,000. He said the entire project cost $2 million, but the other work involved, including improving the collection system, needed to be done regardless.
The 2010 census recorded Winfield’s population at 2,300 residents. The sewer system extends beyond city limits, and the city’s schools double the population during the day, Barrett said.
Belcher said that while the plant’s capacity supposedly was increased years ago, in part by dividing the ponds into smaller compartments and adding aerators, nothing was done to increase the size of the sewer ponds or their depth.
“What has resulted is 10 gallons in a 5-gallon bucket,” he said, adding that he thinks the city should have started a new plant a decade ago.
In March, the city used the Chapman report in a loan application to the state Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council, which recommended seeking a roughly $7.5 million, 30-year loan from the DEP-administered Clean Water State Revolving Fund Program to build a new plant with more treatment capacity.
The loan could have a 0.5 percent annual interest rate and a 0.5 percent annual administration fee.
Even with the low-interest loan, Barrett said the average monthly residential sewer bill will still have to increase from $36 to $64 to fund the plant.
Since he took his current position in 2010, Saunders, the DEP inspector, said he’s seen city and state cooperation on the issue and added that Barrett has been involved. Saunders suggested that might be why the DEP hasn’t fined.
“If everyone’s really making a good effort and doing everything in their power, we try not to punish them with a fine if at all possible,” he said.
Reach Ryan Quinn at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1254.