ASHLAND — The stench of sewage warmed the cold air as Sherry Fair walked the city’s wastewater treatment plant on a cloudy October day — an unpleasant reminder of the plant’s essential, yet easy-to-ignore function.
“This section is the worst for the smell,” said Fair, a knowing smile spreading across the superintendent's face.
She pointed to a large, cylindrical metallic drum that had long slits running around its entire circumference, leading the eyes to a grungy Rumpke dumpster.
As water flows into the Ashland Wastewater Treatment Plant, it runs through a series of filters, or screens. The dumpsters catch the debris — balloons, hygiene products, elastic bands, fabrics.
“You’d be surprised at what we find,” Fair said.
Once properly screened for debris, the water is channeled through additional filtration systems and chemical treatments before being discharged into Lang Creek, a small tributary of Jerome Fork that borders the plant’s 25-acre property.
On average, the Ashland Wastewater Treatment Plant treats 4 million gallons of water every day.
“With more apartments and more businesses and everything like that, that average is gonna keep increasing,” Fair said.
City and EPA officials around the country are currently wrestling with this reality. It’s also an issue that Ashland residents have on their mind. During Ashland Source’s "Talk the Vote" event in October 2021, a resident asked this direct question:
The question came up during a conversation about flooding along Town Run, the creek that runs through Ashland’s downtown.
Infrastructure can be many things: sidewalks, electrical grids, roads, curbs, bridges, culverts, parking lots, even water towers.
Generally speaking, government consistently falls short on funding infrastructure maintenance. A report by former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker's Volcker Alliance in 2019 estimated the U.S. has a backlog of needed repairs amounting to $1 trillion.
But for this story, we will be laser-focused on the Ashland Wastewater Treatment Plant. That’s because the plant is currently under scrutiny after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said an overflow issue must be fixed by 2025.
First, some context.
It’s not the first time the EPA has had Ashland’s treatment plant in its crosshairs. And its common for the agency to find violations in the way entities treat water.
“It’s not uncommon for older communities,” said Shane Kremser, the city’s engineer. “The EPA wasn’t around when that infrastruture was built. They didn’t have those regulations — and they’re all good laws, in my opinion. We should follow them. I mean, they’re our own waterways.”
In 1989, the city and the EPA entered into a consent order.
“(Ashland) has operated its wastewater treatment plant and sewer system in such a manner as to result in numerous violations of the discharge limitations and monitoring requirements,” reads the document outlining the consent order.
The 1989 consent order included a construction schedule for improvements at the treatment plant, but Ashland never followed through. So the EPA got involved again in 2004, this time with greater — and pricier — consequences.
Sewage plants in America are getting older. The one in Ashland is 83 years-old, almost double the average plant lifespan of 40-50 years, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).
In that 83-year lifespan, the plant has been through six improvements. One of those improvements came shortly after the EPA got involved in 2004. By 2005, the city built a 5 million-gallon equalization (EQ) basin — a $5 million tank designed to hold untreated wastewater during a heavy rain event.
The EQ tank was a necessary addition, but it did nothing to improve the plant’s capacity — or the amount of wastewater it can treat.
The last treatment capacity change improvement happened in 1988, Fair said.
“And the original buildings and primary tanks from 1939 and 1957 are still in use today,” she said.
She doesn’t want to give the wrong idea — the plant’s tanks and buildings do an adequate job at treating wastewater. But the process behind that monumental feat is analog, clunky and outdated.
To underscore the plant’s lack of 21st century tech, Fair pointed to the facility’s method of tracking daily flow. Often, plants use digital technology to track this information and upload the data to servers, increasing efficiency and cutting down on man hours.
At Ashland’s plant, the information is tracked by an inked stylus that makes squiggly marks on a round piece of paper. At the end of each day, the plant’s chief operator records the peak and the minimum flow, reads the totalizer flow meter and records all that data onto a spreadsheet on a separate computer.
The operator then files the physical document in one of many filing cabinets that have records dating back years.
“Basically, we take the chart and digitize the data we want off of it,” Fair said.
Then, at the end of every month, she uses that information to report on the plant’s discharge monitoring back to the EPA.
If the plant had a digital monitoring system, the process of recording it and reporting it to the EPA would be more efficient, she said. It could also improve accuracy.
“If we digitized it, you could have these data points by the minute or the hour, and it would show how fast flow went up or down. We’d get a better representation of flows coming into the plant,” Fair said.
Aging systems are an issue, but growing urban locales compound the problem by putting strains on the existing plant, said Matthew Johnson, an engineer for Fehr Graham in Illinois.
The ASCE gave the country’s wastewater infrastructure a D+ grade in its 2021 report card. Approximately 15% of the more than 16,000 wastewater treatment plants across America have “reached or exceeded their design capacities” and most are functioning, on average, at 81% of their design capacities.
Further compounding the issue is a changing environment, which has been “accelerating infrastructure failure with increased flooding, extreme heat and growing storm intensity,” wrote Paul Chinowski in a piece published in September for Science X.
Ashland has seen its fair share of flooding, and so has its sewage plant.
Remember the EQ tank built in 2005? Fair said it was a necessary improvement, but it also caused another unintended problem.
When it rains hard, the plant can handle up to 10 million gallons of water. Any more water coming in is diverted to the EQ basin, which is made up of two tanks the size of football fields and 80-feet deep, that can hold a total of 5 million gallons.
When the extra water is diverted to the EQ basin, the water is untreated. So when the city’s sewage plant floods, it means millions of gallons of untreated water spilling over those tanks and into Lang Creek, which is part of the fourth-largest watershed in the world, the Mississippi River Watershed.
The sewage plant has overflowed 27 times since 2016, amounting to just under 132 million gallons of untreated water trickling back into Lang Creek, according to treatment plant records.
To the EPA, this is bad, and according to the plant’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit — issued and enforced by the EPA — the overflows are a violation.
The permit is issued every five years. The last time Ashland’s wastewater NPDES permit was issued was in June 2020. But it came with a condition in November 2019 via another consent order: Don’t let untreated water spill over into the watershed.
So in September 2021, Ashland City Council hired Burgess & Nigle for $202,500 to study the issue and propose potential solutions in a study that was filed with the EPA in June.
An unfunny challenge
City officials are intimately familiar with the challenge of maintaining and upgrading infrastructure.
“Regardless of whether we’re experiencing growth or not, any sort of growth whatsoever, all of our infrastructure is aging and continually needs upgraded,” said Ashland Mayor Matt Miller.
The challenge? One guess. It rhymes with “funny” and the lack of it often leads to limited resources.
You guessed it — money. The unfunny challenge is a lack of the green stuff to pay for expensive infrastructure needs, Miller said.
“Budgets don’t allow us to do improvements all at one time. So often we respond to where the need is greatest,” Miller said.
Despite the lack of it, the city has spent large chunks of budgeted money on wastewater infrastructure projects in recent years.
In 2020, the city spent $3.8 million on the wastewater treatment plant, replacing sludge storage tanks and adding a phosphorus reduction process. In May 2022, the city spent $330,000 on the plant in order to replace a failed lift station’s pump, and purchase a hydraulic excavator and a truck-mounted crane.
In September, the city spent $64,700 by hiring a company to line a sewer line on Morgan Avenue that had faulty joints, leading to water buildup and a possible sinkhole situation.
But officials are bracing for the price tag associated with fixing this overflowing EQ basin issue at the sewage plant. The cost could blow all the mentioned projects out of the water.
Kremser declined to offer specific cost estimates, but said the figure will be in the “millions of dollars.”
Fair said there are four possible solutions on the table, each with its own set of challenges and costs:
1.) Add to existing, 5-million gallon EQ basin.
2.) Add to the plant’s existing capacity.
3.) Repair the sewage “collection system,” otherwise known as the sewer pipes.
4.) Build a new sewage plant.
Building a new sewage plant is the ideal, pie-in-the-sky option for Fair.
It’s also most likely the priciest. She said it could take “tens of millions of dollars” to build a new plant. Kremser put that figure between $60 million and $80 million.
So before the city decides to pull the trigger on building a new plant, she recommends getting a better grip on how big of a plant the city actually needs.
The way to do that, Fair said, is fixing the sewage plant’s collection system.
“We’re not a combined system,” she said. “So we should not be treating rain water.”
The problem with an aging collection system, she said, is that pipes get cracks in them, which allows for stormwater to leak inside. That phenomenon is what the industry calls “inflow and infiltration,” or I & I.
“I & I is rain water and groundwater that infiltrates through cracks in pipes, or flows in from sump pumps and roof drains and gutters. Basically, it’s rain water that gets into the (sewage) system,” Fair said.
Sealing those decades-old sewage pipes would give Fair and officials a more accurate picture on how much sewage is actually being treated by the existing plant.
“Once you get a better accurate flow number, you can look at how big of a plant you would need to build,” she said.
Kremser agrees the solution involves making improvements to the collection system.
“Every option we explored, we still included some improvement in the system,” he said.
Putting a price tag on that option, and a plan on how to pay for those improvements that will likely be in the “millions of dollars range,” remains fuzzy.