The city has prevailed in yet another year of fighting the elements to preserve the city’s old sewage pipes.
The sewage treatment plant finished the year without any permit violations, the Department of Environmental Conservation said.
The city used to struggle with its permit restrictions because floodwater so often forced the plant to let untreated waste into the Mohawk River.
In 2005, the city signed a consent order with DEC to repair its pipes so that less water got into the sewage during major storms. The treatment plant has enough capacity to handle sewage, but was overwhelmed by the amount of water pouring in through drainage pipes that had been directly hooked to the sewage pipes. Making matters worse, the old sewage pipes also had many small cracks, letting in water.
When the plant was overwhelmed by a sudden influx of liquid, engineers had no choice but to open a valve that releases sewage directly into the river. That sewage was highly diluted by the rainwater, but DEC only allows the plant to do that six times under its permit. The city was regularly exceeding the limit.
Work to clean out a clogged main pipe in 2008 substantially reduced the problem, and now the plant discharges untreated waste so rarely that Deputy Director of Water and Wastewater Paul Lafond couldn’t recall the last time.
The city has to discharge some untreated waste two or three times a year now, he said. That’s a far cry from the six-plus times the city was discharging waste in recent years.
And it’s happening less and less. It’s been more than five months now, Lafond said.
“I don’t think we’ve opened that bypass since the last major storm, and it wasn’t for Sandy,” he said, referring to the storm that hit last October.
But the workers who try to keep rainwater out of the sewage pipes don’t rest on their laurels. It’s a constant fight, Lafond said.
They have largely cut the connections between stormwater and sewage pipes, but they’re still trying to find and reroute illegal sump pumps that homeowners have connected to their residential sewage pipes. Those pumps can send a tremendous amount of water into the system when it rains.
It is legal to drain pumps into the lawn, but not into the street or the sewage system. Do-it-yourself pumps that hook into a basement sink are illegal.
Code enforcers and other inspectors find those sump pumps in houses regularly, Lafond said.
“They have to remove that connection. Unfortunately, we all know what happens,” he added. “You’ve got to worry they’ll reconnect it in 60 days.”
He’s also starting to focus on roof gutters. Many old gutters, particularly on commercial structures, extend down the building into the ground. From there, some of them connect directly to the sewage pipes.
Others lead to storm drainage pipes, which are legal. It’s not easy to tell them apart from above.
“It takes time to look at all of this,” Lafond said.
Still, he thinks the city will eventually cut off all non-sewage connections to the treatment plant and stop releasing any untreated sewage to the river.
“I would hope that someday, yes,” he said. “In the next several years. Through some time, if we can get the public to look at their pumps.”
Workers also keep repairing leaks in the sewage pipes. The steaming machines working on Erie Boulevard now are installing a new liner in the sewage pipe along the entire length of that road before new pavement is laid this spring.
“It’s a tight seal. It’s like a sock, and they pull that sock through, and when they hit it with steam it becomes a new coating,” Lafond said. “The lining is a great technology. It’s only a few millimeters thick. It’s noninvasive because you’re not excavating.”
Workers first send a camera into the pipe and then clean out any debris, including tree roots — a common cause of cracks. The seal itself is expensive, but workers have installed it in several large pipes in recent years, focusing on pipes deep underground that would be very costly to dig up.