Leader Blues

Friday, January 09, 2009

TOP STORY > >Sherwood is repairing sewer problems

Leader staff writer

A visitor to Sherwood’s wastewater treatment plants would be hard-pressed to find any sign of the problems that so upset the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality last year that the agency slapped the city with a negotiated fine of $15,500 and a consent order.

The facilities are orderly and clean, equipment is humming, and the water discharged into the neighboring waterways is sparkling. The overgrowth of vegetation on lagoon levees that posed a threat to their stability is gone.

The dumpsters that catch solid wastes – those random objects that wind up in the toilet such as toys, jewelry, package wrappers, even money – from incoming wastewater now sit on concrete slabs with retaining walls to catch any spills. Water levels in lagoons that serve as holding pools are down to where they should be according to state and federal regulations.

The excesses of bacteria in discharged waters that raised the ire of state and federal inspectors are a thing of the past, too, now that the ultra-violet disinfecting lamps are in working order. Day-to-day discharge water sampling and record keeping are also back in compliance with state regulators.

The one outstanding violation is the condition of the levees around the lagoons. The lagoons are old and do not meet today’s tougher standards for wastewater treatment. Renovations could be costly.

Bill Miller, manager of Sher-wood’s wastewater utility, foresees a possible expansion of the lagoons, higher walls, and rip-rap rock reinforcements, as well as installation of permanent pumps to pull waters from the lagoons into the treatment basins when levels are too high.

A reconstruction of the entire south plant is also a possibility. Miller is eager for recommendations from Crist Engineering and getting on with the improvements.

“That will be a good day for us, so we have something we can maintain and take care of,” he said.

Crist Engineering, a Little Rock firm which specializes in wastewater systems, has been contracted by the city of Sherwood to do a complete evaluation of its two treatment facilities. Another firm is collecting data about the condition of the city’s sewer lines, some of which are at least 50 years old and have cracks. When rains are heavy, the cracked lines take in groundwater that doubles or triples the wastewater load on the plants.

To upgrade the system so it can stay in compliance won’t come cheap. Asked if he agreed with city engineer Ellen Norvell’s estimate of $2 million to $7 million price tag, Miller said, “Yes, I think that is very right,” then added, “Five to seven million is more the deal.”

Miller started as a wastewater technician with Sherwood in the early 1990s, then for six years was director of public works. He has put in 600 classroom hours and now holds the highest certification in wastewater utility operations the state has to offer.

He came back to the wastewater utility as manager last February when city engineer Michael Clayton resigned.

He is proud what he and his crew, supervised by Charlie Cadie, have been able to accomplish in 11 months to bring the system back into compliance. It helps that Miller’s staff numbers six, about double what it had been at times under Clayton. But, the department, in Miller’s opinion, is still without enough personnel to run the utility as it should be.

“It is better than what it has been, but we could use double that,” Miller said. “It used to be that whenever we had a (repair) call, everybody had to leave the plant and go. But, we’re still way understaffed and have to work diligently to stay on top of things.”

Even in a normal week, with no heavy rains or problems at the plants, every worker puts in a mandatory 48 hours, sometimes more.

As for keeping the city sewer lines in top working order, that just is not feasible, said Miller, who laments that with the size of the crew the work is, “I hate to say it – complaint-driven. We are reactive, putting out fires, rather than proactive.” Contract workers are sometimes hired to keep up. If the utility had more technicians to do more of the work in-house, the city might come out ahead, Miller believes.

“Every wastewater utility has a line crew,” he said. “Our guys are very good at point repairs – we could do the job.”

As for the consent order from the ADEQ, Miller said he welcomed that action, because it helped to shine a light on the wastewater utility and its valuable service to the community. Face it, the sewer system is something folks don’t think about unless the toilet backs up, he observes.

“We’re taking care of something that most people don’t have to mess with, to keep them safe and healthy,” Miller said. “As operators, our job is to protect the receiving water stream. It all goes somewhere, and if there is a violation, downstream, it could hurt someone. People don’t realize the education, training, and dedication, the hours you have to spend, 24/7, 365.”