Something Down the Drain

While the problem that caused a suspension of services at the Sister Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant May 14 is now under control, there’s still a need to inform the public about what they can and can’t put down their drains, says Utilities Manager Steve Jacobson.

“People put stuff down their drains, and they think ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’ They don’t realize that, if it causes a problem, it could come right back to them,” he says.

The plant stopped discharging water into the bay for a day and a half starting May 14, when Jacobson found that the level of waste remaining in the water after it passed through the purification system was at about 38 parts per million. The legal limit for discharge is 30 parts per million, and the Sister Bay discharge usually only contains 2 parts per million.

When the plant is functioning properly, wastewater comes in and is run through one of three basins where microscopic organisms are waiting to feed on and break down the solid waste in the flow. Jacobson hypothesizes that, since he couldn’t find anything wrong with his plant, something in the water must have wiped out a bunch of the organisms, thus allowing more waste to survive the filtration process.

That something in the water most likely came from a Sister Bay resident who poured something that they shouldn’t have down the drain. What exactly that something was, Jacobson doesn’t yet know.

David Alberts, Manager at the Ephraim Wastewater Treatment Plant, knows what it’s like to have to contend with and find the cause of a wastewater system scare.

“We had a bug kill off some of our microorganisms in February of 2010,” he says. “We kept under the DNR discharge limits though, and there was no violation.”

The culprit at the Ephraim plant was surfactants, or highly concentrated, industrial soap. But there are a number of items that people let flow into their wastewater that they shouldn’t, says Alberts, including automobile liquids and pharmaceuticals.

Jacobson offers a simple rule for those wondering exactly what is okay to send into the sewers.

“Basically, if it’s not biodegradable, there’s a chance that it could be toxic to some of our organisms,” he says.

Thankfully, according to both Alberts and Jacobson, these kinds of shutdowns are rare occurrences, but both also think that the public should still be more aware about what they send down the drain can affect the water that they get back.

The Sister Bay plant is running again now and discharging clean water. When Jacobson noticed the problem, he diverted the flow from the one basin that had been active at the plant to the two which were being held in reserve.

Jacobson says that because of the short duration of the problem no adverse effects should come of the water that did make it out of the plant while the microorganisms were out of commission, and the plant’s discharge is now well under the legal limit.