Before the fire: Mattawa’s wastewater treatment facility struggled with reporting

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Rachal Pinkerton/Sun Tribune The Portage Avenue Lift Station in Mattawa has dealt with spills the past two years.

MATTAWA —Reporting issues, as required by the state Department of Ecology, have been a challenge at the Mattawa Wastewater Treatment Facility system over the past few years. According to the Department of Ecology, the city of Mattawa had a total of 73 violations and permit triggers. Of those, nine were for improper or incorrect reporting.

“They’re not letting us know when they’re supposed to let us know,” said Ryan Lancaster, with the Department of Ecology.

However, on April 30, 2019, the Department of Ecology did issue a notice of violation to the city of Mattawa. According to documentation on Ecology’s website, the department received a report on Jan. 4, 2019, concerning a spill that had occurred at the Portage Avenue Lift Station on Aug. 16, 2018.

“A lift station is essentially a pump that moves wastewater from a lower to higher elevation,” Lancaster said.

The report came from a resident who had taken pictures of the spill and had previously reported it to the Grant County Health Department. The health department forwarded the pictures to Ecology on Feb. 20, 2019. The spill was unauthorized and discharged untreated wastewater onto the ground and into a neighboring orchard. The city of Mattawa never reported the spill as required by its permit with Ecology.

On Feb. 20, 2019, a second spill occurred at the lift station. This time, the city notified Ecology of the spill, saying that a float switch had failed to initiate, causing the pump not to turn on. The lift station backed up, and wastewater came out a manhole 20 feet upstream. The monitoring system that is supposed to notify city staff of failures also failed and did not alert staff to the problem, according to documents from the Department of Ecology.

Part of the reason the second spill occurred was the lack of a second pump at the pumping station. The city had removed the second pump on Dec. 28, 2018, because it was being replaced. Between 100,000 and 153,000 gallons of raw, untreated sewage was spilled, according to estimates from the city.

The city reported the spill within 24 hours, followed by a five-day report, as required by its permit. The spill contained liquids only and was returned to the lift station. Lime Type S was also applied to the ground to sanitize the contaminated areas. The spill was cleaned up by the end of the day.

Ecology reported that on April 11, 2019, Juan Ledezma, Mattawa’s Public Works director, let Ecology know that two new pumps had been installed at the lift station. In an email dated June 17, 2019, Ledezma told Ecology that the second spill was caused by a float system failure and compromised wiring. He reported that the float system had been replaced and new electrical breakers had been installed.

On July 8, 2019, Ecology sent Mattawa a letter saying that no further actions would be taken in regard to the violations at that time. The Department of Ecology uses penalties as a way to educate and provide technical assistance to entities in an effort to ensure compliance to state and federal laws and regulations. Typically, penalties are only issued for repeat cases of non-compliance after assistance and warnings have been issued.

This wasn’t the first time that the City of Mattawa had been in violation of Ecology policies in the past few years. On Aug. 22, 2017, the Department of Ecology issued a warning letter to the city citing three different violations.

City employees had been using the user IDs and passwords of employees no longer working for the city. Ecology requires that the people submitting Discharge Monitoring Reports must have their own user names and passwords. The use of someone else’s account is illegal and could result in a fine and imprisonment.

The letter also stated that Mattawa failed to alert Ecology to changes in staff at the wastewater treatment facility and that the city had been operating without a certified operator. The city was required to give Ecology a current employee list and a plan for how they intended to hire a full-time wastewater treatment plant certified operator.

Since that time, Mattawa has complied and has hired the necessary personnel for the wastewater treatment facility. There are also personnel in training.

The recent fire at the Mattawa Wastewater Treatment Facility is not related to these incidents over the past few years. The fire was reported to the Department of Ecology in a timely manner and does not have any current violations against it.

Rachal Pinkerton may be reached via email at rpinkerton@suntribunenews.com.

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