BLOOMINGDALE - The town of St. Armand's wastewater treatment plant has been in violation of New York's environmental laws for some time, and town officials are feeling pressure from the state to make improvements.
Town officials say they're working to bring the facility back into compliance. Meanwhile, the town continues to pursue funding for a more comprehensive overhaul of the town sewer system, though the estimated $12 million has been hard to come by.
The town of St. Armand is under a consent order from the state Department of Environmental Conservation to bring its wastewater treatment plant, including this sewage lagoon, into compliance with state regulations.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
St. Armand Councilman Charlie Whitson points to where the town’s sewer system enters its wastewater treatment plant, which the state says is not in compliance with environmental regulations, during a tour of the facility on Monday.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
Since 2009, the town has been under a state Department of Environmental Conservation consent order to bring its sewer plant, located off of River Road, into compliance with state Environmental Conservation Law. The town was fined $12,500 that year for a series of violations, although it only paid $2,500. The remaining $10,000 was suspended so long as the town complied with the terms of the consent order.
DEC officials conducted a comprehensive inspection of the facility in June 2011. Deficiencies were identified, many of them the same as the ones the town was cited for in 2009.
A follow-up inspection was conducted in January of this year, during which "some improvements in plant operations were observed, although many significant items remain to be remedied," according to a Feb. 1 letter from the DEC to town Supervisor Joyce Morency and town board members.
Among the findings, the sewer plant's effluent, which drains into Sumner Brook and from there to the Saranac River, has exceeded its permitted limits for "Carbonaceous Biochemical Oxygen Demand" during late winter and/or early spring every year since 1997 - a pattern that DEC says continued through 2011.
DEC inspectors also cited the town for not following the proper monitoring and recording requirements at the sewer plant. Operations and maintenance of the facility was also found to be lacking, and DEC said the town is in violation of a regulation that requires the sewer plant be staffed by two certified operators. It currently has only one part-time sewer operator, Stan Ingison.
"The town is currently in violation (of state regulations) by not properly operating and maintaining this permitted facility," the letter reads. "The facility is currently under a consent order and the department will be contacting the town in the near future to discuss this and other compliance matters."
The town's sewer system was built in 1984 by what was then the village of Bloomingdale. One year later, the village dissolved and the town took over the sewer district, which serves all of Bloomingdale except for five streets, the residents of which have their own septic systems.
"Within the first several years, less than 10 years, the sewer plant was not aerating properly and all kinds of things were going wrong," Morency, who has been supervisor since 1981, told the Enterprise last week. "The town had to do some new aeration stuff down there. We put in a new Biolac (aeration) system, and over the years that has failed.
"Maintenance is one of the problems, as far as I'm concerned, that was not being taken care of. I assumed the person doing the job was doing the maintenance, but you can't follow a man around every day. Maintenance was neglected terribly."
Town and Essex County officials, who've been assisting the town, say funding to make the necessary repairs to the sewer system has been one of the biggest challenges. The town has applied for funding 11 different times since 2008 and has only received a small grant to perform a pre-engineering report.
"Money has dried up," Morency said. "There's no money out there, and there's too many people after it. We've tried and tried."
Last year, the town received a hardship determination on its application for a $2 million grant from the New York State Environmental Facilities Corporation, but Morency said she's still waiting to hear if that money will come through.
Outside funding is a necessity, the supervisor said; otherwise, too much of a burden for the repairs will fall on the sewer district's roughly 300 ratepayers.
"The district is so small that to say to these people, 'You have to pay a huge debt,' they couldn't afford it," she said. "There's just too few people."
While they are keeping their fingers crossed for funding, town officials say they're working to bring the treatment plant's operations back into compliance. Morency said Ingison and Councilman Charlie Whitson, who's been volunteering his time, have been trying to improve the aeration of town's two sewer lagoons and performing other necessary maintenance.
"We're trying to get it so the operation down here is acceptable by the state," Whitson said during a Monday tour of the sewer operation. "You not only have equipment that you have to buy, but you also have daily, weekly and monthly checks you're supposed to be performing. And if you're not doing them, you know what happens; everything goes to hell."
Whitson said DEC has threatened the town with additional fines unless it brings the operation into compliance and moves forward with upgrading the sewer system.
"It's been held out there in front of us," Whitson said. "The furthest they have pushed it is, I can't exactly remember the date, but sometime this year they are threatening to file if we don't continue the process of moving forward."
DEC spokesman David Winchell wouldn't confirm or deny that.
"DEC does not publicly comment on legal or enforcement matters until they have closed," Winchell said in an email.
The ongoing situation with the sewer system was discussed at a special town board meeting last month that included representatives of the county, EFC and AES Northeast, a Plattsburgh-based engineering firm the town has hired.
"We went over where we stand financially and all the problems we're facing," Morency said. "Everything was talked about, including what we had to do to get past the consent order and have that lifted. I don't know if it would be lifted from what we're doing. I think what we're doing will put us in good graces at DEC, if we can get it aerating enough. I'm hoping for that, but consent orders don't go away, and we need money to do a real revamping up there."
"We're doing everything we can to try to get the funding," said Councilman Sam Grimone. "We're doing all we can to keep the system operating as best as it can until upgrades and replacements can be done. It's an uphill battle but we're doing the best we can."