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Sewage plant violating environmental permits as recovery work continues


VESTAL, NY (WSKG) — Several months after a major failure, the largest sewage treatment plant on the Susquehanna River in New York continues to exceed the levels of contaminants it’s permitted to release.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Environmental Protection Agency have both notified management at the Binghamton-Johnson City Joint Sewage Treatment Plant that the facility is in violation of its permits for contaminants being released into the Susquehanna River.

The plant’s superintendent, Elliot Wagner, called the contaminant levels “atrocious” and stressed the seriousness of the situation to the board overseeing the plant this week.

According to a monthly report presented by Wagner, some contaminant levels were almost double their permitted amounts. The average levels of fecal coliform, suspended solids, nitrogen and phosphorus all exceeded their permitted amounts for the month of March. Prior to the February incident, the plant had been well within its permitted limits for over a year.

While the environmental regulators could eventually levy fines against the sewage plant, the DEC appears to be understanding of the situation and more focused on restoring the facility to its full operational capacity.

"We understand in an instance like that our focus needs to be on helping them get it back into compliance,” DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos told WSKG. “We have supplied a significant number of grants and loans to the plant over the years to get them up to the point where they have this state of the art facility. We want to see them get back to that."

Seggos toured the plant with Wagner, Binghamton Mayor Jared Kraham, Johnson City Mayor Martin Meaney and Sewage Board Chairman George Kolba Tuesday. The visit was unannounced.

The DEC commissioner said he is highly confident in the plant’s management.

"It's not very often that the commissioner of the DEC shows up to this plant,” Wagner said at the sewage board’s meeting later in the day Tuesday. “I don't think it's happened in the 27 years that I've worked here.”

During the early morning hours on February 18, a viewing hole in the side of a large concrete basin detached, causing millions of gallons of partially treated sewage to begin flooding the CN cell gallery building at the plant. The water submerged electrical components and lifted an entire HVAC unit off the ground, snapping a two-inch gas line. Nobody was injured during the incident and plant workers were able to cut off the flow going into the building.

“We were extremely lucky that something even worse didn’t happen here,” Wagner said last month.

At the time, Wagner, the DEC and other plant officials said they thought the incident was the result of a pipe burst in the CN cell building.

Around the same time as the rupture in the CN cell, plant staff and sewer board officials believe a sewer line crossing the Susquehanna River near Goudy Station in Johnson City may have ruptured. Since February, the plant has been processing an additional 15 million gallons of inflow per day, leading some sewage board members to believe that river water may be entering the system. Wagner’s report indicates the facility treated an average of 26 million gallons per day in March, up from 14 million gallons per day in January.

The additional flow has further complicated an already strained process, as plant staff tries to treat millions of gallons of sewage using primary processes such as settling, ultraviolet light treatment and using chlorine.

Wagner said the CN cell building has been cleaned. In February, the board declared a formal emergency, allowing it to bypass certain procurement processes like competitive bidding to expedite the recovery of the plant. At the same time, it approved a $350,000 contract with ServPro, a firm specializing in disaster cleanup. That contract was later increased to $400,000.

According to budget reports presented at Tuesday’s sewer board meeting, the board has budgeted for just over $2.1 million in expenses related to the cleanup and restoration of the facility related to the February incident. An additional $54,000 worth of expenses will be presented to Binghamton and Johnson City’s legislative bodies in the coming weeks.

According to the budget documents, the board is accounting for $2 million in expected insurance recoveries. The board has also retained a public adjuster.

The board has yet to initiate any litigation surrounding the CN cell incident, though discussions over the potential for legal action appear to be occurring in executive session. On Tuesday, the board entered executive session to discuss both pending and potential litigation.

One of the board’s members, Edward Crumb, opposed an unrelated motion to renew a contract with GHD Construction Services. Crumb said he opposed renewing the contract with GHD following the February incident as the board continued discussing pending litigation.

Vaughn Golden has been reporting across New York since 2016. Working as a freelancer while studying journalism and economics at Ithaca College, Vaughn has reported for a number of outlets including the Albany Times Union, New York Post, and NPR among others. Prior to coming to WSKG full-time, Vaughn was a reporter for the Watertown Daily Times. Vaughn now covers government and politics for WSKG.