LITTLETON — The town is working to avoid hefty fines from the state for its deficient wastewater treatment plant that has incurred years of deferred maintenance and little investment for upkeep and replacement of old equipment.
On Thursday, municipal officials sent a response to the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, which in November issued a notice of potential violations that cited dozens of deficiencies.
“While it was a pretty scathing [DES] letter, it encapsulates what I’ve seen since I’ve been here and that’s the plant needs a lot of attention and probably led to the emergency repairs that we’re doing now,” Littleton Town Manager Jim Gleason said Friday. “So, hopefully, the process of the non-compliance letter and our response back will help the budget committee and the Board of Selectmen recognize that if we need to ask for some money in a warrant system, which doesn’t go against the taxes but it does the user fees, they’ll know that these are needed repairs and upgrades.”
While a town’s wastewater treatment is not a sweet project, it is the centerpiece that makes all other projects, such as the river district, possible, he said.
If something fails at the plant, Littleton doesn’t want to be known as the town with sewage in the river, said Gleason.
“Hopefully, our letter identified most of the concerns, or at least identified what the plans are in place that will hopefully get us a positive response from the state that we’re moving in the right direction,” said Gleason.
On Oct. 20, personnel from DES’s wastewater engineering bureau conducted a site visit.
That visit turned up 43 deficiencies in septage receiving, head-works, the pump station, pump building, oxidation ditches, clarifies, sludge tank room, centrifuge room, UV disinfection system, odor control system, and National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit compliance
Among the findings, according to the DES notice issued Nov. 4, are inoperable septage tank mixers for the 6,000-gallon tank; a ruptured line making inoperable plant water access at septage receiving; no heat in the head-works building and severe corrosion throughout the building; reduced capacity of the two temporary screw pumps; recent flooding in the pump building caused by failures of both sump pumps and the basement alarm system; evidence of chronic water seepage; no functioning air system in the sludge tank room and rusted ceiling beams; and a non-functioning odor control system.
DES sought from the town an inventory of all equipment at the facility, a copy of the standard operating procedures, and a corrective action plan.
Littleton is the owner of the facility and contracts out its management and the plant’s testing and reporting to the H2O Innovation, which does the licensing and day-to-day plant operations.
As owner of the plant, the town faces possible state and federal enforcement action for non-compliance and civil and possible criminal penalties, said Teresa Ptak, of DES’s permit compliance division in the wastewater engineering bureau.
In time for DES’s response deadline on Thursday, Gleason submitted to DES in an 11-page letter, drafted via Doug Damko, director of the Littleton Public Works Department, and in conjunction with the Dufresne Group, the engineering firm the town enlists for the wastewater treatment plant, and H2O, that addresses the deficiencies point by point and states that some equipment, like the septage tank mixers and odor control system, haven’t worked for more than 20 years.
“The town and the contracted plant operator have been working towards implementing a cloud platform-based asset management software that is anticipated to go live in January 2022,” he wrote to DES. “This software will improve the overall inspection and oversight of all asset components of the treatment plant.”
The town also gave a replacement timeline for some of the deficient equipment.
While Gleason is concerned about fines from non-compliance — some penalties can be daily and thousands of dollars — he said a bigger concern is a catastrophic failure that would grind the plant to a halt.
For the emergency repairs, the bar rack that filters out debris from the front end to prevent it from entering the system and the two primary screw pumps are scheduled to arrive by the end of December and be replaced in January, in a roughly $1.5 million project that will essentially eat up the town’s sewer reserve fund.
The pumps that have a lifespan of 20 years are more than 30 years old.
The first one failed earlier in the year and the second is only working at half capacity. The town has a temporary pump in place in the event the second one dies.
As for money for wastewater treatment plants, some of it is available from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 and possibly through the new federal infrastructure bill.
In most cases, though, a municipality will need to put up a match, and that’s the reason for a possible town meeting warrant article, with the money coming from not from taxes but from the user fees, said Gleason.
With the town’s sewer reserve fund mostly depleted from the emergency repairs, he said Littleton needs to be in a position to have money in the event something else fails at the plant or the state dictates that something else needs to be done.
Grant applications are being advanced by the town.
“Hopefully, with the combination of town support, we can make an investment in that plant,” said Gleason.
As for the plant’s current condition, Gleason said he’s not pointing fingers at anyone and said the reason is a combination of factors that include old equipment, perhaps poor communication between who’s running the plant and town officials, and the turnover that comes through the years with selectmen and town managers and plant managers and plant employees.
“These things just didn’t happen in the last year or two,” said Gleason. “Somehow, the plant wasn’t emphasized enough or made important enough. The river district and Main Street, everybody was focused on all of these new projects and there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of attention paid to the plant … A lot of times it’s hard to get elected officials and the public excited about wastewater treatment plants. You shower and flush and don’t think anything of it.”
Selectman Milton Bratz said he’s also not blaming anyone and the current condition of the plant should be a learning experience for all to make it a larger priority and with better communication and better continuity between town officials and plant managers who come and go.