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VOL. 133 | NO. 53 | Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Sewer Problems, Policies Test City’s ‘Brilliant at the Basics’ Resolve

By Bill Dries

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When Jim Strickland ran for Memphis mayor in 2015 on a campaign that would be “brilliant at the basics,” he probably didn’t have in mind the recent attention that sewers – the most basic of city services – have gotten in recent months.

The city’s north wastewater treatment plant resumed partial operations Sunday, March 11, with the plant expected to resume full operations by Friday, according to city public works director Robert Knecht.

The Maynard Stiles Wastewater Treatment Plant shut down Thursday following a surge of flood waters and mechanical and electrical problems combined to disable three pump motors in a well.

Water in the basin in the area came through manholes at nearby General DeWitt Spain Airport and almost made it onto the runway. The flooding was contained and the airport was closed for several hours Saturday into Sunday.

Maintenance of the city’s sewer system involves big-dollar figures as well as big machinery. The system is currently undergoing nearly $1 billion in renovations, including sewer line inspections that require heavy machinery as well as lots of safety equipment. (Daily News File/Houston Cofield)

By noon Sunday, Knecht said workers were able to get a spare pump motor installed and running to make the treatment plant partially functional. Since then, other pumps have been brought in to work on the backup of untreated wastewater.

“We brought up 18 to 20 pumps to then pump what was happening … into the Mississippi River,” Knecht said. “We notified the state and explained to them the circumstances – that we had no other alternative. We had to protect the property.”

That means untreated sewage is pumped directly into the Mississippi River. From the outset Knecht has acknowledged it’s a violation of state and federal regulations put in place since the 1970s when that was a common practice.

The new federal regulations prompted the city to build the Maxson and Stiles Wastewater Treatment plants that same decade.

Since then, the city has had evergreen agreements to provide sewer services to the six suburban cities and towns in Shelby County in exchange for their share of federal funds for such services. The city also had a general policy of providing developers of unincorporated areas of the county access to the sewer system. Strickland announced in August the city was ending the policy to encourage more development within the city of Memphis, and as a reaction to proposed de-annexation legislation in Nashville aimed at Memphis in particular.

Suburban leaders were assured their evergreen agreements remain in effect and developments in the pipeline, so to speak, in unincorporated Shelby County would be considered for sewer connection on a case-by-case basis.

City chief operating officer Doug McGowen said the city has not stopped sewer connections for developments in those areas, but now plugs a development’s size into a model that shows its impact on sewer system capacity.

“We think there are some downstream constraints we have to work on,” McGowen said of capacity issues in the Fletcher Creek basin that covers parts of Cordova, Bartlett and Lakeland. “We will know in the next few months what additional capacity we can take. We will also know in the next few months what new capacity we need to add.”

McGowen linked those concerns to the city’s sewer cutoff in unincorporated Shelby County.

The Stiles and Maxson plants are about to get their first major renovation. Each will also use a new disinfectant process for water, with the city selling some of the property at the Stiles plant to the company that makes PAA – peracitic acid – to manufacture the water disinfectant.

Maxson’s $150 million renovation is ahead of the Stiles plant’s renovation, which is still in the planning stages.

Knecht said the Stiles plant shutdown Thursday will likely change the administration’s thinking on what is the most immediate need.

“We’ve identified this need to have some additional redundancy here to protect us in the future,” Knecht said of the Stiles plant, named for a former city public work sand fire director. “So we are going to be escalating that to make sure we have what we identified as a need so we don’t have the problem again.”

All three of the well pump motors that failed last week in a surge of flood water – weighing 25,000 pounds each – are now being repaired.

The north plant normally treats 150 million gallons of wastewater a day before it goes into the Mississippi River.

Knecht put a preliminary cost of repairs at $5 million to $6 million that will come from the city’s sewer fund – an enterprise fund consisting of revenue specifically from sewer fees.

Knecht has said there will be some kind of penalty for the city’s dumping of untreated wastewater into the Mississippi River.

It was similar problems that led the city, years before Strickland took office, to enter into a consent decree with federal environmental officials for another $750 million in capital and sewer fund renovations and updates of the citywide system.

“It’s just because of the magnitude of it,” Knecht said. “This facility (Stiles) is a billion-dollar facility to construct and build new. You are looking at a major industrial facility – if you look at the size and complexity of what we do, just to treat wastewater so we can discharge it in the river.”

The river crested over the weekend about six feet above flood stage as public works crews worked to get the Stiles plant back up and running on a partial basis.

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